MicroRNAs (miRNAs) regulate gene output by targeting degenerate elements in mRNAs and have undergone drastic expansions in higher metazoan genomes. The evolutionary advantage of maintaining copies of highly similar miRNAs is not well understood, nor is it clear what unique functions, if any, miRNA family members possess. Here, we study evolutionary patterns of metazoan miRNAs, focusing on the targeting preferences of the let-7 and miR-10 families. These studies reveal hotspots for sequence evolution with implications for targeting and secondary structure. High-throughput screening for functional targets reveals that each miRNA represses sites with distinct features and regulates a large number of genes with cooperative function in regulatory networks. Unexpectedly, given the high degree of similarity, single-nucleotide changes grant miRNA family members with distinct targeting preferences. Together, our data suggest complex functional relationships among miRNA duplications, novel expression patterns, sequence change, and the acquisition of new targets.
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