A single transcript sometimes codes for more than one product. In bacteria, and in a few exceptional animal lineages, many genes are organized into operons: clusters of open reading frames that are transcribed together in a single polycistronic transcript. However, polycistronic transcripts are rare in eukaryotes. One notable exception is that of miRNAs (microRNAs), small RNAs that regulate gene expression at the post-transcriptional level. The primary transcripts of miRNAs commonly produce more than one functional product, by at least three different mechanisms. miRNAs are often produced from polycistronic transcripts together with other miRNA precursors. Also, miRNAs frequently derive from protein-coding gene introns. Finally, each miRNA precursor can produce two mature miRNA products. We argue, in the present review, that miRNAs are frequently hosted in transcripts coding for multiple products because new miRNA precursor sequences that arise by chance in transcribed regions are more likely to become functional miRNAs during evolution.

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