MicroRNA profiling in the Weddell seal suggests novel regulatory mechanisms contributing to diving adaptation

Luca Penso-Dolfin, Wilfried Haerty, Allyson Hindle, Federica Di Palma

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8 Citations (Scopus)


Background: The Weddell Seal (Leptonychotes weddelli) represents a remarkable example of adaptation to diving among marine mammals. This species is capable of diving > 900 m deep and remaining underwater for more than 60 min. A number of key physiological specializations have been identified, including the low levels of aerobic, lipid-based metabolism under hypoxia, significant increase in oxygen storage in blood and muscle; high blood volume and extreme cardiovascular control. These adaptations have been linked to increased abundance of key proteins, suggesting an important, yet still understudied role for gene reprogramming. In this study, we investigate the possibility that post-transcriptional gene regulation by microRNAs (miRNAs) has contributed to the adaptive evolution of diving capacities in the Weddell Seal. Results: Using small RNA data across 4 tissues (brain, heart, muscle and plasma), in 3 biological replicates, we generate the first miRNA annotation in this species, consisting of 559 high confidence, manually curated miRNA loci. Evolutionary analyses of miRNA gain and loss highlight a high number of Weddell seal specific miRNAs. Four hundred sixteen miRNAs were differentially expressed (DE) among tissues, whereas 80 miRNAs were differentially expressed (DE) across all tissues between pups and adults and age differences for specific tissues were detected in 188 miRNAs. mRNA targets of these altered miRNAs identify possible protective mechanisms in individual tissues, particularly relevant to hypoxia tolerance, anti-apoptotic pathways, and nitric oxide signal transduction. Novel, lineage-specific miRNAs associated with developmental changes target genes with roles in angiogenesis and vasoregulatory signaling. Conclusions: Altogether, we provide an overview of miRNA composition and evolution in the Weddell seal, and the first insights into their possible role in the specialization to diving.

Original languageEnglish
Article number303
JournalBMC Genomics
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 15 Apr 2020


  • Adaptation
  • Deep diving
  • Evolution
  • Gene regulation
  • Hypoxia
  • Marine mammals
  • microRNA

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