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Leitão, J. Extracellular ncRNAs. Encyclopedia. Available online: (accessed on 20 June 2024).
Leitão J. Extracellular ncRNAs. Encyclopedia. Available at: Accessed June 20, 2024.
Leitão, Jorge. "Extracellular ncRNAs" Encyclopedia, (accessed June 20, 2024).
Leitão, J. (2021, January 01). Extracellular ncRNAs. In Encyclopedia.
Leitão, Jorge. "Extracellular ncRNAs." Encyclopedia. Web. 01 January, 2021.
Extracellular ncRNAs

Non-coding RNAs (ncRNAs) are key regulators of post-transcriptional gene expression in prokaryotic and eukaryotic organisms. These molecules can interact with mRNAs or proteins, affecting a variety of cellular functions. Emerging evidence shows that intra/inter-species and trans-kingdom regulation can also be achieved with exogenous RNAs, which are exported to the extracellular medium, mainly through vesicles. In bacteria, membrane vesicles (MVs) seem to be the more common way of extracellular communication.

Extracellular ncRNAs

1. Introduction

Non-coding RNAs (ncRNAs) are ubiquitous gene regulatory molecules across all life domains, although with specific particularities in plants, animals, and microorganisms. In eukaryotes, ncRNAs can control gene expression by different mechanisms, including chromatin architecture, epigenetics, transcription, splicing, editing, and translation[1][2]. ncRNAs can be classified as long ncRNAs (lncRNAs) with more than 200 nucleotides, and small ncRNAs (sncRNAs) with less than 200 nt[3]. The sncRNAs can further be subdivided into microRNAs (miRNAs) and short interfering RNAs (siRNAS), usually ranging 18–22 nt and 20–24 nt long, respectively[1]. miRNAs and siRNAs can be distinguished by their role in the physiology of the eukaryotic cell. miRNAs are involved in endogenous gene expression regulation, while siRNAs are mainly responsible for protecting the cell from exogenous nucleic acid attack. miRNAs and siRNAs regulate gene expression at the post-transcriptional level by binding their target mRNA by base complementary, generally with an inhibitory effect on gene expression. These interactions depend on two major families of proteins, Dicer enzymes that excise them from their precursors, and Ago proteins that support their silencing effector functions[2][4].

miRNAs were first identified in Caenorhabditis elegans in 1993, and since then almost 50,000 have been discovered in 271 species[2][4] miRNAs can be generated from an exclusive gene, from clusters that encode several miRNAs and/or proteins, and even from introns[5]. In animals, miRNAs interaction with their targets mostly involve a partial complementarity that initiates with Watson–Crick base pairing of the seed region of the miRNA nucleotides 2–8 to the target mRNA[2]. Although similar to animal miRNAs, plant miRNAs are classified in hairpin-derived small RNAs (hpRNAs) and double-stranded (ds) RNA-derived small RNAs (siRNAs). The complementarity patterns of the functional miRNA/targets in plants also differ from the animal ones, where a near-perfect complementarity is achieved between miRNA and mRNA[2][6].

Originally described in plants, siRNAs were observed as a transgene- and virus-induced silencing phenomenon[7] and are categorized in trans-acting siRNAs (ta-siRNAs), endogenous siRNAs (endo-siRNAs), and exogenous siRNAs (exo-siRNAs). siRNAs are characterized by the formation of a duplex, sense-antisense, similar to cis-ncRNA in bacteria (described below), leading to the target mRNA degradation[2].

lncRNAs are the longer ncRNAs in eukaryotes and the ones that are poorly understood. Based on their location and neighborhood orientation, lncRNAs can be classified as sense/antisense, divergent/convergent, or intronic/intergenic. They can act through several mechanisms such as a direct regulation of gene expression and activity, a decoy to prevent the attachment of transcription factors to specific promoter regions, a guide to orientate proteins to their target locations, and a scaffold to assist with the assembly of pertinent molecular units[8]. lncRNAs can modulate transcription, whether repressing or activating, by sequestering factors including transcription factors, catalytic proteins, subunits of larger chromatin modifying complexes, as well as miRNAs[3]. Frequently, changes in lncRNAs expression leads to a dysregulation of cellular functions such as cell proliferation, induction of angiogenesis, resistance to apoptosis, promotion of metastasis, and evasion of tumor suppressors. Many lncRNAs have been functionally associated with human diseases such as cancer [9].

On the other hand, bacterial non-coding RNAs were first described in Escherichia coli, in the 1960s. The majority of bacterial ncRNAs range from 50 to 400 nucleotides long, being capable of driving the fastest transcriptional regulation[10][11][12][13]. As far as it is known, bacterial ncRNAs are mainly located in intergenic regions and represent about 5% of the total number of bacterial genes[12][14]. Bacterial ncRNAs can target multiple molecular structures, being involved in the regulation of diverse cellular processes, including replication, transcription, translation, energetic and general metabolism, peptidoglycan synthesis, and bacterial virulence[10][15]. Bacterial ncRNAs can play a role in cellular metabolism, iron homeostasis, quorum-sensing (QS), stress response, environmental adaptation, as well as in mechanisms related to bacterial pathogenesis[16]. Mainly acting by antisense base-pairing, bacterial ncRNAs can be classified as cis- or trans-encoded, sharing a full or partial complementarity with their mRNA targets, respectively. Due to their nature, trans-encoded ncRNAs are less specific and usually target multiple mRNAs[15][17]. The majority of the bacterial ncRNAs bind the 5′ untranslated region (5′-UTR) of the target mRNA, although interactions with the 3′-UTR and the coding region have been reported. The interaction between ncRNA and mRNA can result in a translation suppression, with or without RNase E-mediated mRNA degradation. There are also cases reporting that this interaction can lead to an activation of gene expression[15][18]. The regulatory function of a bacterial ncRNA can also be impaired by other RNA molecules such as mRNA and ncRNA[19][20]. Bacterial ncRNAs can also interact with proteins, and particularly important are the interactions with RNA chaperones. RNA chaperones play a crucial role in the regulatory mechanisms of some ncRNAs, by stabilizing the RNA molecules and/or mediating the interaction between sRNAs and their targets. Proteins of the Hfq family are the best characterized bacterial RNA chaperones, being present across kingdoms and highly conserved among bacterial genomes[21][22][23][24] [21,22,23,24]. Another recently characterized RNA chaperone is the ProQ, a chaperone that seems to be involved in interactions with more structured ncRNAs[25].

2. Extracellular ncRNAs in Eukaryotes: Release Mechanisms and Relevance in Bacterial Infections

siRNAs were the first ncRNAs described to be involved in intercellular interactions, as a way to disturb other cells, to promote cell-cell communication, or as a defense mechanism against exogenous RNAs. However, an increasing panoply of ncRNAs is being found in the extracellular space, including among others, eukaryotic miRNAs, lncRNAs, siRNAs, piwi-interacting RNAs, and bacterial ncRNAs[26][27]. miRNAs have also already been found in diverse extracellular environments such as blood, urine, saliva, and ascitic fluid[26]. These facts may open the door to engineer the use of miRNAs as biomarkers and, in a research perspective, to pave the way for the understanding of the possible intra- and interspecies communication through exogenous miRNAs.

At least five mechanisms of miRNAs release to the extracellular environment have been described: (i) miRNA bound to RNA-protein complexes. A couple of studies have identified the secretion of miRNAs linked to proteins of the Argonaute family, such as Argonaute 2 (Ago2), a type of protein that is associated to RNA-inducing silencing complex (RISC)[28]. RISC is involved in most of miRNAs regulation[29]. In fact, the majority of miRNAs found in human plasma are bounded to Argonaut proteins, but this seems to be mainly related to cell death and not to a selective secretion of miRNAs[30]; (ii) transport via lipid or lipoprotein particles. In addition to being crucial transporters of steroids, triglycerols, cholesterol, and fat-soluble vitamins, low-density lipoproteins (LDL) and mainly high-density lipoproteins (HDL) can also play a role in miRNAs intercellular communication[31][32]. The loading mechanism seems to involve divalent cation bridging between miRNAs and HDL[31]; (iii) inside microvesicles. Microvesicles are formed by plasma membrane by budding or fission, and therefore, their lipid content is quite similar to the parent cell membrane [33]. Microvesicles can be a way of secretion of many types of molecules, including nucleic acids, being also responsible for the cell-to-cell communication by miRNAs exportation in several clinical conditions [34]. Although there is evidence of the involvement of microvesicles miRNAs on intracellular communication, their relevance in infection conditions remains unknown, as well as the sorting and loading processes [35]; (iv) inside vesicles from apoptotic bodies. Apoptosis is a natural process of controlled cell death by eukaryotic cells. In this process, the release of apoptotic bodies, the greatest vesicles secreted by eukaryotic cells, is common [36]. As with microvesicles, the content can be vast, including miRNAs, mRNAs, and DNA fragments, but it can also be selective, and under specific conditions, some miRNAs can be highly represented on these vesicles [37]. Again, the sorting mechanism remains unknown[35]; (v) inside exosomes. Despite their origin or structure, extracellular vesicles (EV) seem to be the most usual mechanism to selectively export ncRNAs to the extracellular space [27]. Exosomes seem to play a special role in cell-to-cell communication on infection conditions[35]. Exosomes are generated inside endosomes or multivesicular bodies (MVBs) and released through fusion of these exosome-enriched late endosomes with the plasma membrane (Figure 1) [38]. Although the process of sorting and loading of ncRNAs is still poorly characterized, is about exosomes that we know the most. In animals, the heterogeneous nuclear ribonucleoprotein A2B1 (hnRNPA2B1) was described to control the exosomal loading of miRNAs by binding to specific “EXOmotifs” on these miRNAs[39]. The most detailed example found in the literature is about colorectal cancer cells. In this case, the KRAS-MEK signaling pathway seems to be responsible for the regulation of exosomal loading of the RISC component Argonaute 2, an RNA-binding protein and a key effector of miRNA-guided RNA silencing process[40]. In addition, during the sorting and loading of ncRNAs in exosomes, other RNA-binding proteins are also suggested to participate, such as the Y-box protein required for the miR-233 secretion by human embryonic kidney (HEK)293T cells[41], and the SYNCRIP protein required for miRNA sorting in hepatocytes. miRNAs found in those exosomes possess an extra-seed sequence (hEXO motif) that binds to these RNA-binding proteins[42]. Still, in the hepatic system, the RNA-binding protein Vps4A was found to mediate the flux of miRNAs through exosomes. Vps4A facilitates the secretion of oncogenic miRNAs in exosomes while promoting the accumulation and uptake of tumor suppressor miRNAs in cells. A downregulation of this protein was observed in hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) cells[43]. In addition, the transcriptional regulation of miRNAs expression or of their targets also implies a miRNA sorting regulation on exosome secretion, as shown in macrophages and endothelial cell communication[44]. The mechanism of sorting and loading of miRNAs in infection conditions needs to be investigated.