The regulation of gene expression is of fundamental importance to maintain organismal function and integrity and requires a multifaceted and highly ordered sequence of events. The cyclic nature of gene expression is known as ‘transcription dynamics’. Disruption or perturbation of these dynamics can result in significant fitness costs arising from genome instability, accelerated ageing and disease. Recent research supports the idea that an important new role for small RNAs, particularly microRNAs (miRNAs), is in protecting the genome against short-term transcriptional fluctuations, in a process we term ‘microguarding’. An additional emerging role for miRNAs is as ‘micromessengers’—through alteration of gene expression in target cells to which they are trafficked within microvesicles. There is scant but emerging evidence that miRNAs can be moved between different cells, individuals and even species, to exert biologically significant responses. With these two new roles, miRNAs have the potential to protect against deleterious gene expression variation from perturbation and to themselves perturb the expression of genes in target cells. These interactions between cells will frequently be subject to conflicts of interest when they occur between unrelated cells that lack a coincidence of fitness interests. Hence, there is the potential for miRNAs to represent both a means to resolve conflicts of interest, as well as instigate them.
Eukaryotic RNA nomenclature and function. The small RNA family: small RNAs were initially defined as non-coding RNA molecules of 50–250 nucleotides (nt). However, with the discovery of a plethora of 19–32 nt non-coding families of RNAs over the last two decades, the term is now generally used to describe these ‘smaller’ small non-coding RNAs (Perkel, 2013).