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SUMMARY

Small RNA (sRNA)-guided processes, referred to as RNA silencing, regulate endogenous and exogenous gene expression. In plants and some animals, these processes are noncell autonomous and can operate beyond the site of initiation. Viroids, the smallest self-replicating plant pathogens known, are inducers, targets and evaders of this regulatory mechanism and, consequently, the presence of viroid-derived sRNAs (vd-sRNAs) is usually associated with viroid infection. However, the pathways involved in the biogenesis of vd-sRNAs are largely unknown. Here, we analyse, by high-throughput pyrosequencing, the profiling of the Hop stunt viroid (HSVd) vd-sRNAs recovered from the leaves and phloem of infected cucumber (Cucumis sativus) plants. HSVd vd-sRNAs are mostly 21 and 22 nucleotides in length and derived equally from plus and minus HSVd RNA strands. The widespread distribution of vd-sRNAs across the genome reveals that the totality of the HSVd RNA genome contributes to the formation of vd-sRNAs. Our sequence data suggest that viroid-derived double-stranded RNA functions as one of the main precursors of vd-sRNAs. Remarkably, phloem vd-sRNAs accumulated preferentially as 22-nucleotide species with a consensus sequence over-represented. This bias in size and sequence in the HSVd vd-sRNA population recovered from phloem exudate suggests the existence of a selective trafficking of vd-sRNAs to the phloem tissue of infected cucumber plants.