One of the biggest changes in evolutionary theory in the late 20th century was the growing appreciation for the central role of changes in gene expression in macroevolution. Developmental genes, especially Hox genes, turned out to be remarkably conserved across lineages that diverged over half a billion years ago. The subsequent huge changes in morphology were more often due to changes in when and where those genes were expressed than to changes in the coding sequences of the genes themselves.
Even more recently, an entire new class of regulatory mechanisms was discovered and found to be important in developmental processes. MicroRNAs (miRNAs) are short (21-24 nucleotides) sequences of RNA that reduce gene expression by promoting the breakdown of messenger RNAs (mRNAs) and by repressing translation of mRNAs into proteins. We have only known that microRNAs even existed since the early 1990’s, and their importance in gene regulation and development wasn’t appreciated until the 2000’s.
Although they are structurally similar, plant and animal microRNAs repress gene expression through very different mechanisms. A new paper by Betty Y-W. Chung and colleagues in Nature Plants shows that the regulatory mechanisms of Chlamydomonas microRNAs have both striking similarities and important differences with animal miRNAs: