MicroRNA: a new target for improving plant tolerance to abiotic stress

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MicroRNAs (miRNAs) are an extensive class of endogenous, small RNA molecules that sit at the heart of regulating gene expression in multiple developmental and signalling pathways. Recent studies have shown that abiotic stresses induce aberrant expression of many miRNAs, thus suggesting that miRNAs may be a new target for genetically improving plant tolerance to certain stresses. These studies have also shown that miRNAs respond to environmental stresses in a miRNA-, stress-, tissue-, and genotype-dependent manner. During abiotic stress, miRNAs function by regulating target genes within the miRNA–target gene network and by controlling signalling pathways and root development. Generally speaking, stress-induced miRNAs lead to down-regulation of negative regulators of stress tolerance whereas stress-inhibited miRNAs allow the accumulation and function of positive regulators. Currently, the majority of miRNA-based studies have focused on the identification of miRNAs that are responsive to different stress conditions and analysing their expression profile changes during these treatments. This has predominately been accomplished using deep sequencing technologies and other expression analyses, such as quantitative real-time PCR. In the future, more function and expression studies will be necessary in order to elucidate the common miRNA-mediated regulatory mechanisms that underlie tolerance to different abiotic stresses. The use of artificial miRNAs, as well as overexpression and knockout/down of both miRNAs and their targets, will be the best techniques for determining the specific roles of individual miRNAs in response to environmental stresses.

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