The importance of microRNAs in the regulation of various aspects of biology and disease is well recognized. However, what remains largely unappreciated is that a significant number of miRNAs are embedded within and are often co-expressed with protein-coding host genes. Such a configuration raises the possibility of a functional interaction between a miRNA and the gene it resides in. This is exemplified by the Drosophila melanogaster dE2f1 gene that harbors two miRNAs, mir-11 and mir-998, within its last intron. miR-11 was demonstrated to limit the proapoptotic function of dE2F1 by repressing cell death genes that are directly regulated by dE2F1, however the biological role of miR-998 was unknown. Here we show that one of the functions of miR-998 is to suppress dE2F1-dependent cell death specifically in rbf mutants by elevating EGFR signaling. Mechanistically, miR-998 operates by repressing dCbl, a negative regulator of EGFR signaling. Significantly, dCbl is a critical target of miR-998 since dCbl phenocopies the effects of miR-998 on dE2f1-dependent apoptosis in rbf mutants. Importantly, this regulation is conserved, as the miR-998 seed family member miR-29 repressed c-Cbl, and enhanced MAPK activity and wound healing in mammalian cells. Therefore, the two intronic miRNAs embedded in the dE2f1 gene limit the apoptotic function of dE2f1, but operate in different contexts and act through distinct mechanisms. These results also illustrate that examining an intronic miRNA in the context of its host's function can be valuable in elucidating the biological function of the miRNA, and provide new information about the regulation of the host gene itself.
Animal genomes encode hundreds of microRNA genes that impact all areas of biology by limiting the expression of their targets. What remains largely unappreciated is that a significant proportion of microRNA genes are embedded within protein-coding genes, and are often co-expressed with their hosts, which raises the possibility of a functional interaction between them. The mir-998 gene is located within an intron of the gene encoding Drosophila E2F1 transcription factor. E2F1 can induce the expression of cell death genes, and its activity is negatively regulated by the pRB tumour suppressor protein. In certain settings, unrestrained E2F1 activity is sufficient to induce cell death in cells lacking functional pRB. Here, we show that miR-998 limits cell death in Rb-deficient cells by repressing dCbl, a negative regulator of Epidermal Growth Factor Receptor signaling (EGFR). miR-998 also augments EGFR signaling in differentiating photoreceptor cells. Furthermore, we show that the interaction between miR-998 and Cbl is conserved: in human cells, miR-29, a mir-29/998 seed family member, enhances EGFR signaling by targeting c-Cbl. Therefore, by examining the role of an intronic microRNA in the context of its host's function, we identified an important microRNA target and uncovered a biological function of the microRNA.