mir-17-92, a potent polycistronic oncomir, encodes six mature miRNAs with complex modes of interactions. In the Eμ-myc Burkitt’s lymphoma model, mir-17-92 exhibits potent oncogenic activity by repressing c-Myc-induced apoptosis, primarily through its miR-19 components. Surprisingly, mir-17-92 also encodes the miR-92 component that negatively regulates its oncogenic cooperation with c-Myc. This miR-92 effect is, at least in part, mediated by its direct repression of Fbw7, which promotes the proteosomal degradation of c-Myc. Thus, overexpressing miR-92 leads to aberrant c-Myc increase, imposing a strong coupling between excessive proliferation and p53-dependent apoptosis. Interestingly, miR-92 antagonizes the oncogenic miR-19 miRNAs; and such functional interaction coordinates proliferation and apoptosis during c-Myc-induced oncogenesis. This miR-19:miR-92 antagonism is disrupted in B-lymphoma cells that favor a greater increase of miR-19 over miR-92. Altogether, we suggest a new paradigm whereby the unique gene structure of a polycistronic oncomir confers an intricate balance between oncogene and tumor suppressor crosstalk.
The role of genes, in very simple terms, is to be transcribed into messenger RNA molecules, which are then translated into strings of amino acids that fold into proteins. Each of these steps is extremely complex, and a wide range of other molecules can speed up, slow down, stop or otherwise disrupt the expression of genes as protein products. Genes can also code for nucleic acids that are not translated into proteins, such as microRNAs. These are small RNA molecules that can reduce the production of proteins by repressing the translation step and/or by partially degrading the messenger RNA molecules.
mir-17-92 is a gene that exemplifies much of this complexity. It codes for six different microRNAs in a single primary transcript, and has been implicated in a number of cancers, including lung cancer, Burkitt’s lymphoma and other forms of lymphomas and leukemia. One of six microRNAs has a longer evolutionary history than the remaining five: mir-92 is found in vertebrates, chordates and invertebrates, whereas the other five are only found in vertebrates. However, it is not known how or why the mir-17-92 gene evolved to code for multiple different microRNAs.
Olive et al. have studied how these mir-17-92 microRNAs functionally interact in mice with Burkitt’s lymphoma, a form of cancer that is associated with a gene called c-Myc being over-activated. Mutations in this gene promote the proliferation of cells, and in cooperation with other genetic lesions, this ultimately leads to cancer. mir-17-92 is implicated in this cancer because it represses the process of programmed cell death (which is induced by the protein c-Myc) that the body employs to stop tumors growing.
Olive et al. found that deleting one of the six microRNAs, miR-92, increased the tendency of the mir-17-92 gene to promote Burkitt’s lymphoma. By repressing an enzyme called Fbw7, miR-92 causes high levels of c-Myc to be produced. While this leads to the uncontrolled proliferation of cells that promotes cancer, it also increases programmed cell death, at least in part, by activating the p53 pathway, a well-known tumor suppression pathway. The experiments also revealed that the action of miR-92 and that of one of the other microRNAs, miR-19, were often opposed to each other. These findings have revealed an unexpected interaction among different components within a single microRNA gene, which acts to maintain an intricate balance between pathways that promote and suppress cancer.