RNA interference (RNAi) is mediated by small, 20-24-nt-long, non-coding regulatory (s)RNAs such as micro (mi) and small interfering (si) RNAs via the action of ARGONAUTE (AGO) proteins. High-throughput sequencing of size-separated sRNA pools of plant crude extracts revealed that the majority of the canonical miRNAs were associated with high molecular weight RNA-induced silencing complexes co-migrating with AGO1 (HMW RISC). In contrast, the majority of 24-nt-long siRNAs were found in association with low molecular weight complexes co-migrating with AGO4 (LMW RISC). Intriguingly, we identified a large set of cytoplasmic sRNAs, including mature miRNA sequences, in the low molecular size range corresponding to protein-unbound sRNAs. By comparing the RISC-loaded and protein-unbound pools of miRNAs, we identified miRNAs with highly different loading efficiencies. Expression of selected miRNAs in transient and transgenic systems validated their altered loading abilities implying that this process is controlled by information associated with the diverse miRNA precursors. We also showed that the availability of AGO proteins is a limiting factor determining the loading efficiency of miRNAs. Our data reveal the existence of a regulatory checkpoint determining the RISC-loading efficiencies of various miRNAs by sorting only a subset of the produced miRNAs into the biologically active RISCs.
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