MicroRNAs (miRNAs) are a class of small noncoding RNAs that regulate gene expression by targeting mRNAs for translation repression or mRNA degradation. Many miRNAs are being discovered and studied, but in most cases their origin, evolution and function remain unclear. Here, we characterized miRNAs derived from repetitive elements and miRNA families expanded by segmental duplication events in the human, rhesus and mouse genomes. We applied a comparative genomics approach combined with identifying miRNA paralogs in segmental duplication pair data in a genome-wide study to identify new homologs of human miRNAs in the rhesus and mouse genomes. Interestingly, using segmental duplication pair data, we provided credible computational evidence that two miRNA genes are located in the pseudoautosomal region of the human Y chromosome. We characterized all the miRNAs whether they were derived from repetitive elements or not and identified significant differences between the repeat-related miRNAs (RrmiRs) and non-repeat-derived miRNAs in (1) their location in protein-coding and intergenic regions in genomes, (2) the minimum free energy of their hairpin structures, and (3) their conservation in vertebrate genomes. We found some lineage-specific RrmiR families and three lineage-specific expansion families, and provided evidence indicating that some RrmiR families formed and expanded during evolutionary segmental duplication events. We also provided computational and experimental evidence for the functions of the conservative RrmiR families in the three species. Together, our results indicate that repetitive elements contribute to the origin of miRNAs, and large segmental duplication events could prompt the expansion of some miRNA families, including RrmiR families. Our study is a valuable contribution to the knowledge of evolution and function of non-coding region in genome
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