Team:Heidelberg/Project/miRNA Kit


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Synthetic miRNA Kit

miTuner - a kit for microRNA based gene expression tuning in mammalian cells

With the synthetic miRNA kit, we provide a comprehensive mean

to plan, conduct and evaluate experiments dealing with miBricks

(i. e. microRNA related Biobricks) as key regulators in mammalian cells.


Regulation of any gene of interest has never been as easy as with our miRNA-based expression tuning kit miTuner. Rational design of synthetic miRNA binding sites according to our recommendations enables fine-tuning of gene expression in a range between 5% and 100%. Additionally, we offer Off- and On-targeting switches which effect GOI expression in only one or all but one tissue depending on endogenously occurring miRNAs.

Figure 1: Three modes of gene regulation accomplished by miTuner. a)fine-tuning of gene expression. b) and c) Off- and On-targeting for tissue specific expression of a therapeutic gene

The tuning application is based on a dual promoter construct that expresses a GOI controlled by a synthetic miRNA which is expressed from the same construct (figure 1a). Differing miRNA-binding site interaction efficiencies caused by binding sites of different sequence properties are used to distinctly adjust expression strength of the GOI.

For Off-targeting, the GOI is under control of miRNAs that are found in tissue where gene expression is thereupon silenced while the GOI can still be expressed in other tissues as visualized in figure 1b.

On-targeting is based on the expression of the GOI from a promoter containing a Tet Operon that negatively regulates gene expression in the presence of a Tet Repressor (figure 1c). If the Tet Repressor is under control of perfect binding sites for endogenous miRNAs , it will be downregulated in the target tissue, releasing the promoter and enabling specific GOI expression.


MicroRNAs (miRNAs) are short endogenous, non-coding RNAs that mediate gene expression in a diversity of organisms (Bartel, 2004). Although the understanding of their biological functions is progressing remarkably, the exact mechanisms of regulation are still not unambiguously defined. However, it is commonly believed that miRNAs trigger target mRNA regulation by binding to 3’ untranslated region (UTR) of its target (Chekulaeva and Filipowicz, 2009). Exact principles of expression knockdown mediated by miRNA are still in debate (Eulalio et al., 2008).
However, sequence depending binding site properties have an essential impact on miRNA-mRNA interaction. Depending on pairing specificity translational repression is mediated through the imperfect miRNA-mRNA hybrids. The potential for stringent regulation of transgene expression makes the miRNA world a promising area of gene therapy (Brown et al.,2009). There is a need for tight control of gene expression, since cellular processes are sensitive to expression profiles. Non-mediated gene expression can lead to fatal dysfunction of molecular networks. It is widely known, that miRNAs can adjust such fluctuations (Brenecke et al., 2005). A combination of random and rational design of binding sites could become a powerful tool to achieve a narrow range of resulting gene expression knockdown. To ease in silico construction of miRNA binding sites with appropriate characteristics for its target, we wrote a program - the miBS designer. Using all of our theoretical models gives the user the opportunity to calculate knockdown percentages caused by the designed miRNA in the target cell. Our synthetic miRNA Kit guarantees at least for individually modifiable but still ready-to-use constructs to interfere genetic circuits with synthetic or endogenous miRNAs. We preciously show, that gene expression can thereby by adjusted - tuned - to an arbitrary level. The miTuner (see sidebar) allows on the simultaneous expression of a synthetic miRNA and a gene of interest that is fused with a designed binding site for this specific miRNA. Our modular kit comes with different parts that can be combined by choice, e. g. different mammalian promoters and characterized binding sites of specific properties. By choosing a certain binding site to tag the GOI, one can tune the expression of this gene. Depending on the GOI, different means for read out of gene expression come into play. At first, we applied dual-luciferase assay, since we used Luciferase as a reporter for a proof-of-principle approach. Later on, semi-quantitative immunoblots were prepared for testing of therapeutic genes. However, all the received information fed our models, thereby creating an integrative feedback loop between experiments and simulation.


All gene regulatory constructs for tuning, Off- or On-targeting can easily be assembled using BBB standard cloning from our miRNA Kit parts. After successful cloning, the constructs can be transfected onto a cell line of choice or transferred into a virus backbone for in vivo experiments. For our prove of principle, we used firefly luciferase normalized to Renilla luciferase on miTuner to characterize knockdown efficiencies of different binding sites and show Off- and On-targeting by mouse infection carried by an AAV virus.

miTuner: Expression fine-tuning by synthetic miRNAs

Regulation of gene expression can be achieved by fusing miRNA binding sites right behind a GOI. In case a referring shRNA miR is expressed, the GOI is knocked down. Strength of regulation thereby depends on binding site properties. We are able to tune gene expression linearly over a broad range. This is a first proof of principle for various miRNA-mRNA interactions in vitro. Therefore, we transfected HeLa cells in principle with our pSMB_miTuner Plasmid HD3. It turned out, that there was no obvious effect of different binding sites on reporter gene expression (data not shown). We assume that the RSV driving the shRNA miR is too weak for tight regulation of the referring binding site behind the GOI which is driven by the very strong CMV promoter. Only if a sufficient amount of shRNA miR binds to its target, translation is significantly repressed. Thus, we expressed the shRNA miR from a separate plasmid which was always co-transfected with the original tuning construct. The reporter genes - i. e. hFluc and hRluc - were also expressed from separate plasmids to get a reference as well as a transfection control. Then, we conducted a Dual Luciferase Assay for quantification of gene expression.

Figure 1: Tuning of gene expression through different imperfect shRNA miR binding sites in pBS_H1. Gene expression quantified via dual luciferase assay for constructs containing different imperfect binding sites for shhAAT.

The data preciously shows a tuned expression from almost 0% to 100% (Fig. 1, Fig. 2). Lowest expression refers to complete knockdown through fusion of perfect binding sites (always green bar on the left hand side of the figures) to the reporter gene. 100% means ordinary expression from a construct without binding sites (always orange column on the right hand side of the figures). In presence of the specific shRNA miR, gene expression was mediated to various levels through interactions with the different imperfect binding sites. Whereas, when an unspecific shRNA miR was expressed, gene expression remained unaffected (see raw data below). The latter aspect reveals, that the binding sites were correctly designed, since they seem to interact specifically with a referring shRNA miR.

Figure 2: Tuning of gene expression through different imperfect shRNA miR binding sites in pBS_U6. Gene expression quantified via dual luciferase assay for constructs containing different imperfect binding sites for shhAAT.

The constructs were tested in two different backbones: pBS_U6 and pBS_H1. Both are in viral context, meaning that they contain inverted terminal repeats (ITRs). The constructs can be packed into the capsid of an adeno-associated virus (AAV). Those constructs we also chose for virus production to infect cells even more efficiently as compared to transfections. Because of the significant data, we decided to inject the viruses into mice to see the tuning effect also in vivo. The pBS_H1 construct should be preferred for mice injections since the expressed synthetic shRNA miR against human alpha-1-antitrypsine (shhAAT) is cytotoxic in higher concentrations. The pBS_H1 backbone leads to moderate expression ranges, still obviously showing the tuning effect. Strikingly, the order of constructs in terms of knockdown for the imperfect binding sites is similar. M4, M5 and M6 always show strong knockdown, whereas M9, M10 and M11 show only loose down-regulation. Consulting the binding site sequences, the weak knockdown can be addressed to bulges in the supplementary region or to complete lack of the 3' region of the binding site. Still high strength could be maintained due to only single nucleotide exchanges in the central region of the binding site. The principle of smooth regulation was also demonstrated for miR122, a microRNA that is exclusively upregulated in hepatic cells. Referring binding sites were cloned into psiCHECK-2 backbone (Promega) and due to sequence mutations different Luciferase levels were detected again (Fig. 3).

Figure 3: Tuning of gene expression through different imperfect miR122 binding sites in psiCHECK-2. Construct was transfected into HeLa cells together with an plasmid expressing miR122. Control without binding site was used for normalization.

Measurements were done in HeLa cells overexpressing miR122 from plasmid. Besides that, even endogenous miR122 levels were sufficient for off-targeting HuH cells (Fig. 4). A single perfect binding site leads to 95% knockdown, which seems to be maximum, since even a perfect binding site duplicate results in the same reporter gene expression.

Figure 4: Knockdown of reporter gene expression due to endogenous miR122 that interferes with binding sites. Construct transfected to HuH cells to off-target those.



The miTuner was assembled out of different parts. Cloning was done following standard protocols.

Since the miTuner was constructed initially for Dual Luciferase Assay assay, this was the method of choice for tuning quantification.


Eulalio, A., Huntzinger, E., and Izaurralde, E. (2008). Getting to the root of miRNA-mediated gene silencing. Cell 132, 9-14. Bartel, D.P. (2004). MicroRNAs: genomics, biogenesis, mechanism, and function. Cell 116, 281-297.

miTuner plasmid

working modes

The synthetic miR Kit can be applied in three different ways:

I) Tuning: adjusting the expression
of the GOI by expressing a synthetic microRNA in the target cell/tissue

II) Off-Targeting: switching OFF the expression
of the GOI in case a certain endogenous microRNA is present in the target cell/tissue

III) On-Targeting: switching ON the expression
of the GOI in case a certain endogenous microRNA is present in the target cell/tissue

simple tuning procedure


  • digestion of miR Kit construct with BamHI
  • cloning into viral backbone (e. g. pBS_U6)
  • virus production
  • infection of cells
  • achievement of specific target cell tropism

→ further improvement of gene expression tuning

tuning raw data

For our in vitro tuning, you can have a look even at our unprocessed data with specific nomenclature: