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Feb 26, 2015
The development and homeostasis of multicellular organisms relies on gene regulation within individual constituent cells. Gene regulatory circuits that increase the robustness of gene expression frequently incorporate microRNAs as post-transcriptional regulators. Computational approaches, synthetic gene circuits and observations in model organisms predict that the co-regulation of microRNAs and their target mRNAs can reduce cell-to-cell variability in the expression of target genes. However, whether microRNAs directly regulate variability of endogenous gene expression remains to be tested in mammalian cells. Here we use quantitative flow cytometry to show that microRNAs impact on cell-to-cell variability of protein expression in developing mouse thymocytes. We find two distinct mechanisms that control variation in the activation-induced expression of the microRNA target CD69. First, the expression of miR-17 and miR-20a, two members of the miR-17-92 cluster, is co-regulated with the target mRNA Cd69 to form an activation-induced incoherent feed-forward loop. Another microRNA, miR-181a, acts at least in part upstream of the target mRNA Cd69 to modulate cellular responses to activation. The ability of microRNAs to render gene expression more uniform across mammalian cell populations may be important for normal development and for disease.