Natural killer (NK) and T lymphocytes share many properties, yet only NK cells respond rapidly to infection and cancer without pre-activation. We found that few microRNAs (miRNAs) differed significantly between human NK and T cells. Among those miRNAs, miR-181a and miR-181b levels rose during NK cell differentiation. Prior studies indicate that miR-181a and miR-181b are critical for human NK cell development and are co-transcribed from genes on chromosome 1 (MIR181A1B1) and on chromosome 9 (MIR181A2B2). We mapped human MIR181A1B1 and MIR181A2B2 transcription start sites to 78.3 kb and 34.0 kb upstream of the mature miRNAs, generating predominantly unspliced transcripts of 80-127 kb and ∼60 kb, respectively. Unlike mouse thymocytes, human T cells expressed both MIR181A1B1 and MIR181A2B2. We tested the hypothesis that NK cells differentially transcribe the two genes during development and in response to immune regulatory cytokines. During NK-cell differentiation, MIR181A2B2 expression rose markedly and exceeded that of MIR181A1B1. TGF-β treatment increased NK-cell MIR181A2B2 transcription, whereas IL-2, IL-15 and IL-12/IL-18 treatments upregulated MIR181A1B1. The MIR181A2B2 promoter was strongly transactivated by SMAD3 and SMAD4 transcription factors, suggesting that TGF-β signaling upregulates MIR181A2B2 expression, at least in part, through SMAD-dependent promoter activation.
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We thank Jeffrey Ebersole, Yelena Alimova, Peter Nelson and Luke Bradley for use of equipment, Martha L Peterson, Peter T Nelson, Wangxia Wang and Francesc Marti for advice, Brett Spear and Francesc Marti for cell lines, Teresa Woodruff for plasmids, Dennis Williams and the Kentucky Blood Center for help with blood products and the National Cancer Institute for IL-2. This work was supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health R01 AI56506 to CTL, R01 55417 to JSM.