The pathways that allow short noncoding RNAs such as the microRNAs (miRNAs) to mediate gene regulation and control critical cellular and developmental processes involve a limited number of key protein components. These proteins are the Dicer-like RNases, double-stranded RNA (dsRNA)-binding proteins, and the Argonaute (AGO) proteins that process stem-loop hairpin transcripts of endogenous genes to generate miRNAs or long dsRNA precursors (either exogenous or endogenous). Comparative genomics studies of metazoans have shown the pathways to be highly conserved overall; the major difference observed is that the vertebrate pathways overlap in sharing a single Dicer (DCR) and AGO proteins, whereas those of insects appear to be parallel, with distinct Dicers and AGOs required for each pathway. The genome of the pea aphid is the first available for a hemipteran insect and discloses an unexpected expansion of the miRNA pathway. It has two copies of the miRNA-specific dicr-1 and ago1 genes and four copies of pasha a cofactor of drosha involved in miRNA biosynthesis. For three of these expansions, we showed that one copy of the genes diverged rapidly and in one case (ago1b) shows signs of positive selection. These expansions occurred concomitantly within a brief evolutionary period. The pea aphid, which reproduces by viviparous parthenogenesis, is able to produce several adapted phenotypes from one single genotype. We show by reverse transcriptase-polymerase chain reaction that all the duplicated copies of the miRNA machinery genes are expressed in the different morphs. Investigating the function of these novel genes offers an exciting new challenge in aphid biology.
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