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Department of Biological Sciences

Graduate student Weier Bao authors paper in Gene with USC colleagues

The research provides new insight on the role of micro RNSs in the development of birds and reptiles.

PhD Candidate Weier Bao, a student in Prof. Roger Sawyer's lab, recently published a paper in the journal Gene with colleagues from the Biological Sciences Department.  The paper, "Expressed miRNAs target feather related mRNAs involved in cell signaling, cell adhesion and structure during chicken epidermal development," describes the team's production of quantitative expression data on micro RNAs and messenger RNAs during feather and scale development in birds.


  • MicroRNAs are differentially expressed during avian epidermal development.

  • Post-transcriptional modification (miRNAs) of β-keratins provides a mechanism for understanding the differences between mRNA expression data and the protein analysis data.

  • The miRNA targeting of three major functional categories (cell signaling, cell adhesion and structural genes) of feather development genes indicates that miRNAs have had a diverse and important role in the evolution of feathers.

The abstract of the manuscipt is below:

MicroRNAs (miRNAs) are small non-coding RNAs that regulate gene expression at the post-transcriptional level. Previous studies have shown that miRNA regulation contributes to a diverse set of processes including cellular differentiation and morphogenesis which leads to the creation of different cell types in multicellular organisms and is thus key to animal development. Feathers are one of the most distinctive features of extant birds and are important for multiple functions including flight, thermal regulation, and sexual selection. However, the role of miRNAs in feather development has been woefully understudied despite the identification of cell signaling pathways, cell adhesion molecules and structural genes involved in feather development. In this study, we performed a microarray experiment comparing the expression of miRNAs and mRNAs among three embryonic stages of development and two tissues (scutate scale and feather) of the chicken. We combined this expression data with miRNA target prediction tools and a curated list of feather related genes to produce a set of 19 miRNA-mRNA duplexes. These targeted mRNAs have been previously identified as important cell signaling and cell adhesion genes as well as structural genes involved in feather and scale morphogenesis. Interestingly, the miRNA target site of the cell signaling pathway gene, Aldehyde Dehydrogenase 1 Family, Member A3 (ALDH1A3), is unique to birds indicating a novel role in Aves. The identified miRNA target site of the cell adhesion gene, Tenascin C (TNC), is only found in specific chicken TNC splice variants that are differentially expressed in developing scutate scale and feather tissue indicating an important role of miRNA regulation in epidermal differentiation. Additionally, we found that β-keratins, a major structural component of avian and reptilian epidermal appendages, are targeted by multiple miRNA genes. In conclusion, our work provides quantitative expression data on miRNAs and mRNAs during feather and scale development and has produced a highly diverse, but manageable list of miRNA-mRNA duplexes for future validation experiments.

Citation: Bao W, Greenwold MJ, Sawyer RH. 2016. Expressed miRNAs target feather related mRNAs involved in cell signaling, cell adhesion and structure during chicken epidermal development. Gene S0378-1119(16)30490-5. doi:10.1016/j.gene.2016.06.027.

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