MicroRNAs (miRNAs) are versatile regulators of gene expression with profound implications for human disease including atherosclerosis, but whether they can exert posttranslational functions to control cell adaptation and whether such noncanonical features harbor pathophysiological relevance is unknown. Here, we show that miR-126-5p sustains endothelial integrity in the context of high shear stress and autophagy. Bound to argonaute-2 (Ago2), miR-126-5p forms a complex with Mex3a, which occurs on the surface of autophagic vesicles and guides its transport into the nucleus. Mutational studies and biophysical measurements demonstrate that Mex3a binds to the central U- and G-rich regions of miR-126-5p with nanomolar affinity via its two K homology domains. In the nucleus, miR-126-5p dissociates from Ago2 and binds to caspase-3 in an aptamer-like fashion with its seed sequence, preventing dimerization of the caspase and inhibiting its activity to limit apoptosis. The antiapoptotic effect of miR-126-5p outside of the RNA-induced silencing complex is important for endothelial integrity under conditions of high shear stress promoting autophagy: ablation of Mex3a or ATG5 in vivo attenuates nuclear import of miR-126-5p, aggravates endothelial apoptosis, and exacerbates atherosclerosis. In human plaques, we found reduced nuclear miR-126-5p and active caspase-3 in areas of disturbed flow. The direct inhibition of caspase-3 by nuclear miR-126-5p reveals a noncanonical mechanism by which miRNAs can modulate protein function.
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