The First Report of miRNAs from a Thysanopteran Insect, Thrips palmi Karny Using High-Throughput Sequencing
The First Report of miRNAs from a Thysanopteran Insect, Thrips palmi Karny Using High-Throughput Sequencing
K. B. Rebijith 0 1 2
R. Asokan 0 1 2
H. Ranjitha Hande 0 1 2
N. K. Krishna Kumar 0 2
0 Current address: Department of Physiology, Development and Neuroscience, University of Cambridge , Cambridgeshire , United Kingdom
1 Division of Biotechnology, Indian Institute of Horticultural Research , Bangalore , India , 2 Division of Horticultural Science, Indian Council of Agricultural Research , New Delhi , India
2 Editor: Yu Xue, Huazhong University of Science and Technology , CHINA
Thrips palmi Karny (Thysanoptera: Thripidae) is the sole vector of Watermelon bud necrosis tospovirus, where the crop loss has been estimated to be around USD 50 million annually. Chemical insecticides are of limited use in the management of T. palmi due to the thigmokinetic behaviour and development of high levels of resistance to insecticides. There is an urgent need to find out an effective futuristic management strategy, where the small RNAs especially microRNAs hold great promise as a key player in the growth and development. miRNAs are a class of short non-coding RNAs involved in regulation of gene expression either by mRNA cleavage or by translational repression. We identified and characterized a total of 77 miRNAs from T. palmi using high-throughput deep sequencing. Functional classifications of the targets for these miRNAs revealed that majority of them are involved in the regulation of transcription and translation, nucleotide binding and signal transduction. We have also validated few of these miRNAs employing stem-loop RT-PCR, qRT-PCR and Northern blot. The present study not only provides an in-depth understanding of the biological and physiological roles of miRNAs in governing gene expression but may also lead as an invaluable tool for the management of thysanopteran insects in the future.
Data Availability Statement: All relevant data are
within the paper and its Supporting Information
Funding: This work was supported by Out Reach
Program on Management of Sucking Pests
(ORPSP) of Horticultural Crops' funded by Indian
Council for Agricultural Research (ICAR), New
Delhi (ICAR-ORP-SP-2012-2017). The funders had
no role in study design, data collection and
analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the
manuscript. The specific roles of these authors are
articulated in the `author contributions' section.
MicroRNAs (miRNAs) are a family of small (~18–25 nucleotides (nts)), endogenously
initiated, non-coding RNAs (ncRNAs) that primarily regulate gene expression in animals, plants
and protozoan in a sequence-specific manner. In mammals, approximately 60% of
proteincoding gene activities are under the control of miRNAs and they regulate almost every cellular
process investigated [
]. miRNAs can regulate gene expression either by translation
repression or by degradation of mRNA through deadenylation . The second to seventh nucleotides
in the 5' end of the miRNA form the “seed” region that provides the most of the pairing
]. miRNA-mediated regulation plays a key role in cellular and developmental
processes such as cell division, cell death, disease, hormone secretion and neural development
]. Lin-4 was the first member of the miRNA family, discovered in Caenorhabditis elegans,
which regulates the timing of larval development . Subsequently, many miRNAs have been
revealed from wide varieties of organisms including insects [
], plants [
], viruses  and
The majority of miRNAs are ~22 nts in length and the biogenesis of miRNAs is a multiple
step process that is widely conserved among eukaryotes. miRNA biogenesis requires RNAase
III-like enzymes, Drosha and Pasha (DGCR8, in vertebrates), for generating pre-miRNA (~70
nts) from the primary miRNA (pri-miRNA) transcript [
] which are translocated to the
cytoplasm by exportin-5 [
]. Another class of RNAase III enzyme, Dicer (1 & 2 in insects),
produces a ~22 bp miRNA:miRNA duplex from the previously generated pre-miRNA in the
]. Mature miRNAs are then selectively loaded into the RNA-induced silencing
complex that contains Argonaute family proteins . Thus, the mature RISC containing the
guide strand recognizes the complementary mRNA and cleaves thereby inhibiting the protein
]. Identification of miRNA involves three main approaches, forward genetics,
bioinformatics prediction [
] and direct cloning and sequencing [
]. In the recent
past, the high-throughput next generation sequencing (NGS) technology, for example,
Illumina platform (www.illumina.com) and Roche 454 pyrosequencing platform (www.454.com)
have become robust methods of identifying miRNAs from animals and plants [
]. As a
result, several miRNAs have been reported in the recent past from various orders of insects
such as Diptera, Hymenoptera, Coleoptera, Orthoptera, Lepidoptera, Hemiptera and
Thrips (Thysanoptera: Thripidae) are one of the major sucking pests on many crops and
nearly 6000 species are currently described [
]. Less than 1% of them are considered as pests
of agricultural and horticultural crops, and cause crop damage either by direct feeding or as
vectors by transmitting plant pathogenic tospoviruses [
]. Globally, 12 species of thrips have
been reported as vectors of tospoviruses [
] and among them, T. palmi is an important
polyphagous pest and an extremely successful invasive species that originated in Southeast
Asia but has recently spread to large parts of tropical and sub-tropical countries. In India,
Watermelon bud necrosis tospovirus is succesfully transmitted by T. palmi adults that acquire
the virus during larval stages [
]. The peculiar feature of thrips transmission is that only the
nymphs can acquire the virus while the adults can transmit [
]. The rapid parthenogenetic
reproduction and the feeding behavior of thrips can cause considerable crop damage. The
worldwide annual loss due to tospoviruses is estimated at USD 1 billion and in Asia alone, it is
over USD 89 million [
]. Currently, the management of T. palmi includes mainly chemicals
such as imidacloprid and pyrethroids against which T. palmi has already developed resistance
]. Given the paucity of genomic information of T. palmi, it is important to profile the
miRNAs for understanding their regulatory role in the biology and the great promise they hold in
futuristic pest management. Thus, for the first time, we identified, characterized and validated
both conserved and novel miRNAs from T. palmi. Further analysis identified putative target
genes for these miRNAs, which will shed more light on the identification of highly specific
miRNAs that can be used shortly for thysanopteran pest management.
Materials and Methods
Ethical treatment of animals
No specific permissions were required for these locations/activities, and field studies did not
involve endangered or protected species. Ethical approval was not required to work with thrips,
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the subject species in this study; T. palmi is an invertebrate and not listed on the endangered
species list. Thrips are ubiquitous in their natural ranges.
T. palmi were reared on French bean pods (Phaseolus vulgaris cv. Arka Komal) in plastic
containers (10X10 cm) at 30 ± 2°C, 80 ± 10% RH and 16:8 L:D photoperiod as described
]. Total RNA was isolated from whole-body homogenates of sample mix, containing a
total of 50 mg of different life stages such as eggs, larvae, pupae and adults of T. palmi using
TRIzol reagent (Invitrogen, Carlsbad CA, USA).
Library preparation and sequence data generation
Samples were processed according to Illumina TruSeq™ Small RNA sample preparation guide.
Size fractionated small RNA populations (18–28 nts) were extracted, purified and ligated to 3'
and 5' adapters using T4 RNA Ligase (Life Technologies, Ambion, USA). Ligated products
were reverse transcribed using SuperScript II (Life Technologies, Invitrogen, USA) followed by
PCR amplification with 11 cycles and two size selection gels. High-throughput sequencing of
the small RNA libraries was performed on Illumina Hiseq2000.
The obtained sequence tags were subjected to a primary analysis in which low-quality tags, 3'
and 5' adapter contaminants were discarded. The sequencing data were investigated against the
Rfam (http://rfam.sanger.ac.uk/) and RepBase (http://www.girinst.org/repbase/) as references
to annotate the ncRNAs namely, rRNAs, tRNAs, snRNAs, snoRNAs and repeat-associated
small RNAs and degraded fragments of expressed genes (exons and introns) in the remaining
sequences. All such mapped reads were removed from the dataset before further analysis.
Remaining unique sequences were aligned with the miRNA sequences available in the miRBase
(v21, http://www.miRBase.org/) to identify the conserved miRNAs. Novel miRNA candidates
were identified by employing the miRDeep2 [
] and miRCat (http://srna-workbench.cmp.
uea.ac.uk/tools/mircat/) software. Frankliniella occidentalis genome (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.
gov/nuccore/644576459) was used as a reference to extract the potential secondary hairpin
structures, employing Vienna RNAfold [
Homology analysis was carried out with conserved miRNAs of T. palmi with the miRNAs of
other organisms from the miRBase database (Release 21.0) [
]. BLASTn embedded in the
miRBase database was used to compare the T. palmi miRNAs with other species, with an
Evalue of 0.01 to find out more miRNA homologs. The naming of the miRNAs in this study has
been done according to Griffith-Jones, et al., 2006. Since these miRNAs were predicted from T.
palmi, the prefix for all miRNAs was fixed as ‘tpa’. The rest of the naming convention criteria
were in accordance with miRBase [
Phylogenetic analysis of microRNA family
All the identified miRNAs were classified into different miRNA precursor families (www.rfam.
sanger.ac.uk). Few miRNA families (miR-279, miR-281, miR-1000 and miR-1175) were
selected for phylogenetic analysis. RaxML.v.7.0.4 [
] was employed to construct the
Maximum Likelihood (ML) tree with 2000 bootstrap replications.
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Prediction of miRNA targets
Target identification is crucial for understanding the biological functions of miRNAs. Unlike
the plant counterparts, the imperfect complementarity of animal miRNAs with their target
sequences on mRNA makes it more difficult to judge the accuracy of prediction [
for identified miRNAs were predicted employing miRanda program [
], against the
Expressed Sequence Tags (ESTs) and transcriptome (NCBI Accession: PRJNA203209)
database of F. occidentalis. An alignment score [
] greater than or equal to 130 and miRNA:
mRNA binding energy (Minimum Free Energy (MFE, ΔG)) less than -20 kcal/mol were
considered as putative target genes. The targets were further annotated against NCBI-RefSeq
invertebrate protein database and Gene Ontology (GO) terms were assigned (using Blast-2-GO)
based on the annotation. The circos plot was generated using Circos [
] to visualize the
interaction between miRNAs and their targets.
Validation and quantification of T. palmi miRNAs
stem-loop RT-PCR. We were able to validate few of the conserved and novel microRNAs
employing Stem-loop RT-PCR primers designed based on the previous reports [
stem-loop RT primers bind to the 3' portion of miRNA molecules, initiating reverse
transcription of the miRNAs. Later, the RT product was amplified using a miRNA specific forward
primer and the universal reverse primer.
Reverse transcription quantitative PCR (qRT-PCR). In the present study, we selected
differentially expressed and functionally significant 13 miRNAs (nine conserved and four
novel) for qRT-PCR. Briefly, Mir-X-miRNA qRT-PCR SYBR Kit (Clontech Laboratories, Inc.,
USA) was used for the qRT-PCR reactions, which has a single-step, single-tube reaction to
produce the first-strand cDNA, which was then specifically and quantitatively amplified using a
miRNA-specific primer and SYBR Advantage qPCR chemistry. All the qRT-PCR assays were
conducted according to the MIQE guidelines [
]. U6 snRNA was used as an internal control
gene for normalization. qRT-PCR was performed on Light Cycler 480 (Roche, USA) using 1:20
diluted cDNAs and SYBR Advantage Premix (Clontech Laboratories, Mountain View, USA),
according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Assays were performed in triplicates for three
independent biological experiments and the relative gene expression data were analyzed using
2-ΔΔCT method [
]. The values of these three independent experiments were statistically
analyzed using one-way ANOVA to calculate the statistical significance.
miRNA northern blot. Small RNAs were isolated from pooled T. palmi (eggs, larvae,
pupae and adults) employing mirVANA miRNA isolation kit (Life Technologies, USA). 5 μg
of T. palmi small RNAs were resolved on 15% polyacrylamide gel containing 8M urea. RNA
was electro blotted [TransBlot SD Semi-Dry Electrophoretic transfer cell (Bio-Rad, USA)] for
90 minutes at 20V onto HyBond-N+ membrane (GE Healthcare, USA) and immobilized by
UV cross-linking (Stratagene, USA). The membrane was hybridized with 5'
digoxigeninlabeled locked nucleic acid probes for miRNA detection (100ng/ml, Exiqon) at 37°C overnight.
Later the membranes were washed twice in 2x SSC at 37°C for 15 minutes each. Digoxigenin
signals were detected with DIG Northern starter kit (Roche) according to the manufacturer’s
Overview of the small RNA Library
We obtained a dataset of about 14 million reads from the pooled T. palmi small RNA library
(egg, larva, pupa and adult) sequenced on Illumina Next Generation Sequencing platform.
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After various mapping (Table 1), the trimmed high-quality small RNA reads were employed to
identify both known and novel miRNAs. Size distribution of the high-quality reads in the
library (Fig 1) revealed that the peak was at 25 nts, which was also observed in the pooled
library of Plutella xylostella (L.) [
]. A small portion (<5%) of our library consisted of read
length of around 26 to 28 nts, which could be putative piwi- interacting RNAs (piRNAs) from
T. palmi (S1 Table).
Identification of known miRNA
MiRNAs are known to be conserved among different species within a kingdom. Here, in our
study, the mappable sequences were aligned to miRNA sequences from miRBase v.21.0. The
analysis resulted in a total of 67 conserved miRNAs representing 54 different miRNA families
(Table 2), among which the average similarity between the homologs reached 85% and few of
them had a similarity to the extent of 95–100% with 1–2 nts or no difference. Analysis of the 54
miRNA families revealed that 15 were found to be exclusively present in arthropod species
(Table 3), while 25 miRNA families were vertebrate specific. Seven miRNA families (miR-10,
Fig 1. Length distribution of mappable reads obtained from T. palmi deep-sequencing. Reads with 18 nt
to 26 nt were considered for miRNA mapping.
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Sequence (5' - 3')
Name of the miRNA
miR-100, miR-71, miR-9, miR-92, miR-15 and miR-281) were found to be highly conserved in
the Animal Kingdom (Table 3) during evolution implicating their importance in regulating the
gene transcripts involved in the physiological process. Among the known miRNAs, miR-281
and miR-750 were highly expressed with an expression value of 9560 and 5849 respectively
Identification of miRNA-star strands
In most of the cases, once the mature miRNA strand is loaded into RISC, its star strand will be
degraded soon after being exported to the cytosol. However, our analysis revealed that two T.
palmi miRNA star (miRNA ) strands namely, miR-6489 and miR-6493 were obtained from
our library for their corresponding mature miRNAs (Fig 2). The expression values (Number of
reads) of miR-6489 were lower than that of their corresponding miRNAs, whereas, for
miR6493 it was three times higher (Table 2).
Identification of novel miRNAs
We utilized the genomic sequence assembly of F. occidentalis (Thripidae: Thysanoptera) to
identify the novel miRNAs, as no genomic information is available for T. palmi. Miranalyzer
pipeline identified a total of 10 novel miRNAs from T. palmi for the first time (Table 4), with
their predicted precursor secondary structures (Fig 3). The complete details of the mature
miRNAs and their corresponding pre-miRNAs have been given in Table 4. The length of the novel
miRNAs ranged from 21–24 nucleotides with a preference of Uracil (60%) followed by
Cytosine (20%) at the 5' end. Among these ten miRNAs, five were located in the 5' arm while the
other five arose from 3' arm (Table 4, Fig 3).
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Abundance of novel miRNAs
The novel miRNAs identified from T. palmi varied in their expression values in the library.
Among the novel miRNAs, tpa-miR-N3 (4007 copies), tpa-miR-N4 (1026 copies) and
tpamiR-N7 (380 copies) had the highest abundance compared to the remaining novel miRNAs
(Table 4). Whereas, few other novel miRNAs namely, tpa-miR-N1, tpa-miR-N2, tpa-miR-N6,
tpa-miR-N8 and tpa-miR-N9 were found to be very minimal ( 15 copies). The length and
Minimum Free Energy (MFE) for these novel pre-miRNAs ranged from 58–82 nts and -20.8 to
-44.6 kcal/mol respectively. The (A+U) % of the novel pre-miRNAs was in the range of 37.84%
to 60.87% (Table 4).
Sequence and phylogenetic analysis
Sequence and phylogenetic analyses revealed that some of the known miRNAs were expressed
in a wide range of insect species and are highly conserved (Table 3, Fig 4A1–4D1 and Fig 4A3–
4D3). Mature miRNAs are highly conserved among various species within the Kingdom and
are considered to be the evolutionarily conserved regulators of the gene expression [
phylogenetic trees for miR-1000, miR-1175, miR-281 and miR-279 revealed that T. palmi
Fig 2. Stem loop structures of two miRNAs and their star strands. (A) The secondary structure of
tpa-miR6489 and tpa-miR-6489*. (B) The secondary structure of tpa-miR-6493 and tpa-miR-6493*. Both miRNAs and its
star reads were marked by black bars. The secondary structure was predicted by employing RNA fold WebServer
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Fig 3. Various hairpin secondary structures of the ten novel pre-miRNAs of T. palmi. The mature miRNAs are indicated
by yellow shades. The secondary structure was predicted using RNA fold WebServer.
miRNAs grouped with the closely related species of insects (Fig 4A2–4D2). However, few
miRNAs (miR-1000, miR-2796, miR-965, miR-998, miR-2779, etc.) are highly specific to few
species (Table 3). Fig 4A–4D revealed that T. palmi miRNAs are well conserved, particularly in the
seed region compared to the homologous miRNAs from other species.
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Fig 4. (A) to (D). Homology, phylogeny and weblogo analysis of T. palmi miRNAs. 4(A) to (D) 1. Homology in the seed region of the T. palmi miRNA
with respect to its counterpart from other insect species. Sequence conservation of the T. palmi mature miRNAs including the seed region over a wide range
of insects. The first three letters of each miRNAs indicating the name of the species. 4(A) to (D) 2. Phylogenetic trees (ML tree, RaxML.v.7.0.4) of four
families of precursor miRNA sequences from various members of the animal kingdom. 4(A) to (D) 3. T. palmi pre-miRNAs weblogo. The pre-miRNA
sequence logos for the T. palmi, in which mature miRNA is indicated by blue bars. Each logo consists of stacks of symbols, one for each nucleotide position
in the sequence. The height indicates the sequence conservation at that nucleotide position and the height of symbols within the stack indicates the relative
frequency of each nucleotide at that position. Fig 4(B) 3 indicated the possible presence of miR-281* which was not evident from the NGS raw reads.
However, the presence of miR-281* has been validated by stem-loop RT-PCR.
Targets were predicted for known and novel miRNAs of T. palmi employing miRanda on a
scale of 0–7 to indicate the stringency of miRNA-target pairing with the smaller numbers
representing higher stringency. ESTs and transcriptome of F. occidentalis were used as a reference
for target searches with a cut-off score 140.
Targets for known miRNAs. All 67 known miRNAs were searched for targets against
ESTs and transcriptome sequences of F. occidentalis. Out of the known 67 miRNAs, 20 and 40
known miRNAs were found to have targets in ESTs and transcriptome respectively (S2 and S3
Tables). The enrichment analysis (Blast-2-GO) was performed employing gene ontology (GO)
terms for genes targeted by miRNAs (Fig 5A and 5B). For those targets in the ESTs, three
motifs were over-represented in GO-BP (biological process) category like ‘metabolic process’,
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Fig 5. Gene Ontology (GO) classification of the putative target genes for the T. palmi miRNAs against ESTs (A) and transcriptome (B) sequences
of F. occidentalis. GO terms were assigned to each target gene based on the annotation and were summarized into three main GO categories viz. (i)
biological process (BP) (ii) molecular function (MF) and (iii) cellular component (CC). Only top ten subcategories are presented in the case of GO for
‘transport’ and ‘translation’. The GO-MF (molecular function) category was over-represented
by the motif ‘activity’ and ‘binding’ (Fig 5A). On the other hand, GO-terms enrichment
analysis of miRNA targets in the transcriptome yielded motifs for ‘transport’, ‘metabolic process’
and ‘oxidation-reduction process’ in GO-BP category; while, GO-MF category was
over-represented with motifs for ‘nucleic acid binding’, ‘zinc-ion binding’ and ‘ATP binding’ (Fig 5B).
Complete details of the Blast-2-GO analysis have been provided in S4 and S5 Tables.
Targets for novel miRNA. Ten novel miRNAs were searched for their targets in the F.
occidentalis transcriptome. A total of 33 miRNA-target pairs were obtained (S6 Table) and
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Fig 6. The synteny analyses using Circos (Krzywinski et al. 2009). Map of the Western Flower Thrips, F. occidentalis
scaffolds linking T. palmi miRNAs and their targets prepared using Circos. The outer circle represents the highlights of 10 novel
miRNA in blue and 40 known miRNA represented in red colour. The inner lines in red colour represent known miRNAs and their
targets (839 targets) and blue lines represent 11 novel miRNAs and their targets (33 targets) across 300 scaffolds of F.
further Blast-2-GO analysis yielded ‘regulation of transcription’ and ‘binding’ as GO-BP and
GO-MF category respectively (S7 Table). Complete details of the miRNA targets and
Blast2-GO analysis have been provided in S7 Table.
The synteny analysis of the T. palmi miRNAs and their targets were performed by
employing circos44. In brief, the Blast analysis was performed using T. palmi miRNA sequences
(known and novel) against F. occidentalis scaffolds (Largest 300). The positions of miRNAs
were identified and their targets represented in the Circos plot (Fig 6).
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Validation of T. palmi microRNAs
The present study revealed the novel miRNAs from T. palmi (Tables 2 and 4). However,
further validation of these miRNAs was performed by (i) stem-loop end-point reverse
transcriptase PCR (RT-PCR) (ii) real-time quantitative reverse transcriptase PCR (qRT-PCR) and (iii)
small RNA Northern blots. Using stem-loop end-point RT-PCR, we have validated 9 conserved
(tpa-miR-750, tpa-miR-92b, tpa-miR-281-5p, tpa-miR-2796, tpa-miR-10b-5p, tpa-miR-786,
tpa-miR-6240, tpa-miR-7550 and tpa-mir-15) and 4 novel miRNAs (tpa-miR-N3,
tpamiR-N4, tpa-miR-N7, tpa-miR-N10) from T. palmi using the primer sets as described
(Table 5). All of these miRNAs were amplified with an approximate product size of 75 bp (Fig
Our study also quantified the expression level of the above-mentioned 13 miRNAs from T.
palmi larvae and adults using qRT-PCR (Table 6, Fig 7B). Results suggested that the miRNA
expression was higher in larval stages compared to adults in four microRNAs namely
tpa-miR750, tpa-miR-92b, tpa-miR-10b-5p and tpa-miR-N7 (Fig 7B). Finally, we also validated 3
conserved (tpa-miR-750, tpa-miR-92b and tpa-miR-2796) and three novel miRNAs (tpa-miR-N3,
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Fig 7. Validation of selected conserved and novel miRNAs from T. palmi. (A) Stem-loop RT-PCR analyses of
nine conserved and four novel miRNAs from T. palmi. The products were resolved on 3% agarose gel in 1X TBE
stained with ethidium bromide. HyperLadder™ 25bp (Bioline, USA) employed as a marker. (B) Stem-loop
RTqPCR analysis of spatiotemporally expressed T. palmi miRNAs in larva and adults. `*' and `**' means a
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statistically significant difference at level p < 0.05 and p < 0.001 respectively for these miRNAs in the larva and
adult T. palmi. The error bars indicate standard deviation for three biological replications. (C) Small RNA Northern
blot validation. Both conserved (tpa-miR-750, tpa-miR-92b, tpa-miR-2796) and novel (tpa-miR-N3, tpa-miR-N4
and tpa-miR-N10) miRNAs were validated by small RNA northern analysis employing small RNA isolated from
pooled T. palmi.
tpa-miR-N4 and tpa-miR-N10) employing a more sensitive small RNA Northern blot
technique (Fig 7C).
Illumina deep sequencing approach for identification of microRNAs
With the advent of the next generation sequencing technologies, miRNAs have been
discovered at an accelerated pace. Presently miRNAs are known from more than 25 insect species,
which includes 12 Drosophila species [
]. Among them, the most recent ones are from Plutella
], Spodoptera frugiperda [
], etc. Several miRNAs have been reported from
various orders of insects such as Diptera, Hymenoptera, Coleoptera, Orthoptera, Lepidoptera,
Hemiptera and Homoptera [
], and for the first time, we report the small RNAs from a
thysanopteran insect, T. palmi. In this regard, small RNA library was prepared from the pooled
samples of different developmental stages of T. palmi and then Illumina (sequencing-by-synthesis)
sequencing technology was used to identify miRNAs from the library. The Illumina sequencing
approach is one of the high throughput technologies by which miRNAs of any organisms can
be identified [
]. Size distributions of the high-quality reads varied from 18–28 nts in
the library. The peak was at 25 nt which was at par with the previous studies [
According to Bartel (2004), the average miRNA length is 22 nt in animals and study conducted
showed that the average length is 23 nt.
The unique read distributes of 26–28 nts with a relative lower abundance are common for
many small RNA libraries [
] indicating the presence of piRNAs. Piwi RNAs (piRNAs)
are the class of small RNAs mediating chromatin modifications [
] which are derived mainly
from retro-transposons and other repetitive elements with high sequence diversity [
Thus, the results indicated that T. palmi genome encodes not only miRNAs but also other
Sequence (5' - 3')
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small RNAs such as piRNAs (S1 Table) in a lower proportion that might be involved in the
trans-generational epigenetic inheritance [
Homology-based predictions of miRNAs
The identification of small RNAs (especially miRNAs) based on genomic information has been
reported previously in several insects [
]. In this regard, we report the identification and
characterization of miRNAs from T. palmi based on Illumina small RNA sequencing. We
employed F. occidentalis genome sequences as a reference for T. palmi since the complete
genome for T. palmi is still not available. However, a large proportion (93.12%) of the T. palmi
sRNA sequences could be mapped on to F. occidentalis genome. This higher percentage of
mapping was possible because T. palmi & F. occidentalis (reference genome) belong to the
same family, Thripidae. Mapping onto a whole genome sequence also helped in elucidating the
sample proportion of small ncRNAs such as tRNA, rRNA, snoRNA or snRNA . All of
these sequences were annotated by aligning the reads with Rfam database, which indicated the
efficiency of deep sequencing in identifying small RNAs. Our results indicated that there is a
rich small RNA world evident in T. palmi.
Our study revealed 67 conserved and ten novel miRNAs from T. palmi for the first time.
The (A+U) content of the pre-miRNAs should be in the range of 30–70% [
], as those with
higher (A+U) content bind more strongly to proteins [
]. In this regard, the (A+U) content
of the novel pre-miRNAs ranged from 37.84% (tpa-miR-N9) to 60.87% (tpa-miR-N8). In our
dataset, the most abundant miRNAs were tpa-miR-281 (from the conserved miRNAs) and
tpa-miR-N3 (from the novel miRNAs) with a total of 9560 and 4007 number of reads
miRNAs are known to be conserved among different species within a kingdom and are
evolutionarily conserved regulators of gene expression [
]. Our homology and phylogenetic
analysis revealed that insect miRNAs are known to be well-conserved, despite considerable
diversity in the genome (Fig 4A–4D). In most of the cases, detection of miRNA s is difficult
with the available methods as these molecules are liable to degrade soon after being exported to
the cytosol . However, in our study during the process of identifying conserved miRNAs,
two miRNAs for instance, miR-6489 and miR-6493 that matched to the same precursor
sequences with their mismatched complementary mature miRNAs were also detected. The
weblogo sequences analysis revealed the likely presence of miR-281 which was not identified
in the raw reads of NGS. The presence of miR-281 was identified by BLASTN option in
miRBase and further confirmed by stem-loop RT PCR (Table 5, Fig 4B3). The absence of miR-281
could be due to the faster degradation as compared to miR-281.
Possible roles of T. palmi miRNAs
Although thousands of small RNAs have been discovered in the recent past, [
the primary challenge is to fully identify the spatiotemporally expressed microRNAs and to
determine their individual functions. The majority of the microRNAs have been identified
through either computational prediction or cloning and sequencing [
]. In this study, we
employed Illumina next generation sequencing approach to identify miRNAs from T. palmi.
Currently, there are several mature and precursor microRNAs deposited in the miRBase [
In this connection, we identified a total of 77 miRNAs from T. palmi using high throughput
sequencing. The current study is the first report of miRNA profiling from a Thrips species
employing deep sequencing approach. This approach is far superior to the other approaches of
miRNA identification, as it can discover novel microRNAs [
18 / 25
The analysis of the expression value (read numbers) revealed that the highest expression
was for miR-281 (9560 reads). Recent studies have proved that microRNA-281 regulate the
expression of ecdysone receptor (EcR) isoform B, in the silkworm, Bombyx mori [
miR-281 may be involved in development and metamorphosis of T. palmi by regulating the
genes involved in the ecdysone cascade. The second highest expression was for miR-750 with
an expression value of 7869. RNAi studies proved that the putative JH receptor ultraspiracle
] is a likely target of miR-750. Thus, it indicates that miR-750 may be involved in
hormone signaling, immunity and stress response by regulating the vitellogenin (Vg) gene in T.
Another interesting microRNA obtained in the current study was miR-92 with an
expression value of 1687. Previous studies had shown that miR-92 regulates Mef2, the key
transcription factor for muscle development and differentiation in Drosophila [
]. An insect-specific
microRNA, miR-2796 was identified in T. palmi with an expression value of 479. miR-2796
was found to be the most abundant microRNA in honey bee brain [
miR2796 bound to the coding sequence (CDs) of PLC-epsilon gene in Apis and Tribolium, affecting
the mRNA stability by splicing rather than the normal canonical translational repression [
However, interestingly both miR-2796 and PLC-epsilon gene were missing from the genus
Drosophila, even though it was found in other dipterans [
Our analyses revealed miR-993 were identified only in invertebrates (Table 3). miR-993
belongs to the miR-100/10 family, and both miR-993 and miR-10 are derived from the ancient
miR-100 through duplication and arm-switching [
]. miR100/10 family members could
regulate the expression of relevant Hox-genes, thus may play a crucial role in insect
development . Rest of the insect-specific miRNAs identified in T. palmi may play an important
role in insect-specific features, such as metamorphosis, parthenogenesis and biogenesis of
pheromones . Whereas, the other invertebrate and vertebrate-specific miRNAs (Table 3)
identified from T. palmi required special attention, as their nonexistence in other species of
insects could be due to the absence of genomic information for most of those insects [
These specific microRNAs may be involved in some special biological processes that
distinguish thysanopteran insects from others.
Developmental roles of T. palmi miRNAs
The expression profile of miRNA varies among different developmental stages [
]. In the
present study, the developmental expression profiles (larval and adult stage) of microRNAs
namely, miR-750, miR-92b, miR-281-5p, miR-2796, miR-7550, miR-10b-5p, miR-15,
miR786, miR-6240, tpa-miR-N3, tpa-miR-N4, tpa-miR-N7 and tpa-miR-N10 were investigated by
qRT-PCR (Fig 7B). The higher expression of miR-750, miR-92b, miR-10b-5p and tpa-miR-N7
in T. palmi larvae reflected their possible involvement in insect-specific features such as
metamorphosis, whereas, the high levels of miR-281-5p, miR-2796, miR-7550, miR-15, miR-786,
miR-6240, tpa-miR-N3, tpa-miR-N4 and tpa-miR-N10 in the adult stage indicated their role
in the adult development, parthenogenesis and sexual reproduction.
Target prediction is crucial to understand the biological role of a particular miRNA. Unlike
their plant counterparts, the imperfect complementarity of animal miRNAs to their target
mRNA sequences makes it more difficult to judge the accuracy of prediction. MicroRNAs can
bring about mRNA cleavage or translational repression of target mRNAs by binding to 3'
UTRs, 5' UTRs and even to coding regions [
]. However, animal miRNAs primarily target the
3' UTRs; and therefore, we limited our target search to (i) expressed sequence tags (ESTs) and
(ii) transcriptomic sequences of F. occidentalis. The predicted targets were annotated against
GO database and the targeted genes included transcription factors, signal transduction,
19 / 25
hormone pathways, molting and even metabolism. Therefore, all these conserved and novel
miRNAs identified from T. palmi could play a vital role in diverse biological processes, thus
undoubtedly participating in the regulation of thrips growth and development.
In summary, results from this study add to our growing pool of miRNA database and is the
first report on such analysis in a thysanopteran insect, T. palmi. Deep sequencing of small
RNAs has facilitated the identification of miRNAs from T. palmi. Sixty-seven conserved and
ten novel miRNAs that were identified with high confidence and sufficient evidence are the
contributions from our study. Most of the T. palmi miRNAs were homologous to insects as
compared to the vertebrates. Sequence and phylogenetic analyses revealed that most of the T.
palmi miRNAs are highly conserved in various species, making miRNAs, a hallmark of
evolutionarily conserved regulators of gene expression. To harmonize the data, and to provide more
useful biological insights, we also carried out in silico analysis for identifying potential targets
for these miRNAs. Unlike the plant counterparts, the imperfect complementarity of metazoan
miRNAs to the target has been found to be sufficient to promote the RNA silencing, as in the
case of Drosophila and Bactrocera [
]. Our results indicated that the list of putative mRNA
targets was very extensive (S2, S3 and S6 Tables), even with stringent parameters applied to
miRanda. Our results suggested that most of the putative target genes for T. palmi miRNAs
were associated with several KEGG pathways like metabolic process, transport, translation,
signal pathways and oxidative phosphorylation. However, further wet lab experiments are still
required for the validation of these targets in understanding the biology of this insect.
Expression levels of few miRNAs were also validated by both qRT-PCR and Northern analysis.
Several miRNAs were identified and characterized from animals and plants and among
them, very few were further explored for various applications by disrupting specific pathways
targeted by these miRNAs. This can be achieved by employing the artificial microRNAs
]. Recent studies successfully demonstrated the use of amiRNAs for targeting the
reporter and the endogenous genes in animals and plants. Identification and expression of a
few essential insect-specific gene(s) in plants, can target and degrade an invading insect’s
genes, consequently confer insect resistance [
]. Results from our study indicated few
miRNAs have been predicted to be involved in the adult development process, which can be further
utilized in gene functional studies through RNAi-based approach or in developing miRNA
mimics both for feeding and in planta expression [
] as novel pest management
strategies based on gene silencing and insect transgenesis.
S1 Table. Small RNAs (Piwi RNAs) with nucleotide lengths larger than 25 nucleotides
obtained from our sequencing data.
S2 Table. Potential targets for the identified known miRNAs with EST orthologs of F.
S3 Table. Potential targets for the identified known miRNAs with the transcriptomic
sequences of F. occidentalis.
S4 Table. Complete Functional categories of gene ontology classification of the putative
target genes for the T. palmi miRNAs against ESTs of F. occidentalis.
20 / 25
S5 Table. Complete Functional categories of gene ontology classification of the putative
target genes for the known miRNAs against transcriptome sequences of F. occidentalis.
S6 Table. Potential targets for the identified novel miRNAs with Transcriptome sequences
S7 Table. Complete Functional categories of gene ontology classification of the putative
target genes for the novel miRNAs against transcriptome sequences of F. occidentalis.
of F. occidentalis.
We thank Sonal Dsouza, Communication and Programme Assistant, Bioversity International
for language editing that greatly improved the manuscript. We also thank the three anonymous
reviewers for their careful reading and useful suggestions and comments on an earlier version
of the manuscript. Our sincere thanks are due to The Director, IIHR, Bangalore for providing
necessary facilities. This work is a part of the Ph. D Thesis of the senior author K. B. Rebijith.
Conceptualization: KBR HRH.
Data curation: KBR.
Formal analysis: KBR.
Funding acquisition: RA NKK.
Investigation: KBR HRH.
Methodology: KBR HRH.
Software: KBR HRH.
Supervision: RA NKK.
Validation: KBR HRH.
Project administration: KBR HRH RA NKK.
Visualization: KBR HRH.
Writing – original draft: KBR.
Writing – review & editing: HRH NKK RA.
21 / 25
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