Multicellular organisms use precise gene regulation, executed throughout development, to build and sustain various cell and tissue types. Post-transcriptional gene regulation is essential for metazoan development and acts on mRNA to determine its localization, stability, and translation. MicroRNAs (miRNAs) and RNA binding proteins (RBPs) are the principal effectors of post-transcriptional gene regulation and act by targeting the 3'untranslated regions (3'UTRs) of mRNA. MiRNAs are small non-coding RNAs that have the potential to regulate hundreds to thousands of genes and are dysregulated in many prevalent human diseases such as diabetes, Alzheimer's disease, Duchenne muscular dystrophy, and cancer. However, the precise contribution of miRNAs to the pathology of these diseases is not known.
MiRNA-based gene regulation occurs in a tissue-specific manner and is implemented by an interplay of poorly understood and complex mechanisms, which control both the presence of the miRNAs and their targets. As a consequence, the precise contributions of miRNAs to gene regulation are not well known. The research presented in this thesis systematically explores the targets and effects of miRNA-based gene regulation in cell lines and tissues.
I hypothesize that miRNAs have distinct tissue-specific roles that contribute to the gene expression differences seen across tissues. To address this hypothesis and expand our understanding of miRNA-based gene regulation, 1) I developed the human 3'UTRome v1, a resource for studying post-transcriptional gene regulation. Using this resource, I explored the targets of two cancer-associated miRNAs miR-221 and let-7c. I identified novel targets of both these miRNAs, which present potential mechanisms by which they contribute to cancer. 2) Identified in vivo, tissue-specific targets in the intestine and body muscle of the model organism Caenorhabditis elegans. The results from this study revealed that miRNAs regulate tissue homeostasis, and that alternative polyadenylation and miRNA expression patterns modulate miRNA targeting at the tissue-specific level. 3) Explored the functional relevance of miRNA targeting to tissue-specific gene expression, where I found that miRNAs contribute to the biogenesis of mRNAs, through alternative splicing, by regulating tissue-specific expression of splicing factors. These results expand our understanding of the mechanisms that guide miRNA targeting and its effects on tissue-specific gene expression.