ABSTRACT: BACKGROUND: MicroRNA (miRNA) mediated regulation of gene expression has been recognized as a major posttranscriptional regulatory mechanism also in plants. We performed a comparative analysis of miRNAs and their respective gene targets across four plant species: Arabidopsis thaliana (Ath), Medicago truncatula(Mtr), Brassica napus (Bna), and Chlamydomonas reinhardtii (Cre). RESULTS: miRNAs were obtained from mirBase with 218 miRNAs for Ath, 375 for Mtr, 46 for Bna, and 73 for Cre, annotated for each species respectively. miRNA targets were obtained from available database annotations, bioinformatic predictions using RNAhybrid as well as predicted from an analysis of mRNA degradation products (degradome sequencing) aimed at identifying miRNA cleavage products. On average, and considering both experimental and bioinformatic predictions together, every miRNA was associated with about 46 unique gene transcripts with considerably variation across species. We observed a positive and linear correlation between the number miRNAs and the total number of transcripts across different plant species suggesting that the repertoire of miRNAs correlates with the size of the transcriptome of an organism. Conserved miRNA-target pairs were found to be associated with developmental processes and transcriptional regulation, while species-specific (in particular, Ath) pairs are involved in signal transduction and response to stress processes. Conserved miRNAs have more targets and higher expression values than non-conserved miRNAs. We found evidence for a conservation of not only the sequence of miRNAs, but their expression levels as well. CONCLUSIONS: Our results support the notion of a high birth and death rate of miRNAs and that miRNAs serve many species specific functions, while conserved miRNA are related mainly to developmental processes and transcriptional regulation with conservation operating at both the sequence and expression level.