Next-generation sequencing now for the first time allows researchers to gage the depth and variation of entire transcriptomes. However, now as rare transcripts can be detected that are present in cells at single copies, more advanced computational tools are needed to accurately annotate and profile them. microRNAs (miRNAs) are 22 nucleotide small RNAs (sRNAs) that post-transcriptionally reduce the output of protein coding genes. They have established roles in numerous biological processes, including cancers and other diseases. During miRNA biogenesis, the sRNAs are sequentially cleaved from precursor molecules that have a characteristic hairpin RNA structure. The vast majority of new miRNA genes that are discovered are mined from small RNA sequencing (sRNA-seq), which can detect more than a billion RNAs in a single run. However, given that many of the detected RNAs are degradation products from all types of transcripts, the accurate identification of miRNAs remain a non-trivial computational problem.
Here, the authors review the tools available to predict animal miRNAs from sRNA sequencing data. They present tools for generalist and specialist use cases, including prediction from massively pooled data or in species without reference genome. They also present wet-lab methods used to validate predicted miRNAs, and approaches to computationally benchmark prediction accuracy.