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Am J Hum Genet. 2012 Jun 8;90(6):1046-63. doi: 10.1016/j.ajhg.2012.04.023. Epub 2012 May 31.

Genetic architecture of microRNA expression: implications for the transcriptome and complex traits.

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Section of Genetic Medicine, Department of Medicine, University of Chicago, IL 60637, USA.


We sought to comprehensively and systematically characterize the relationship between genetic variation, miRNA expression, and mRNA expression. Genome-wide expression profiling of samples of European and African ancestry identified in each population hundreds of miRNAs whose increased expression is correlated with correspondingly reduced expression of target mRNAs. We scanned 3' UTR SNPs with a potential functional effect on miRNA binding for cis-acting expression quantitative trait loci (eQTLs) for the corresponding proximal target genes. To extend sequence-based, localized analyses of SNP effect on miRNA binding, we proceeded to dissect the genetic basis of miRNA expression variation; we mapped miRNA expression levels-as quantitative traits-to loci in the genome as miRNA eQTLs, demonstrating that miRNA expression is under significant genetic control. We found that SNPs associated with miRNA expression are significantly enriched with those SNPs already shown to be associated with mRNA. Moreover, we discovered that many of the miRNA-associated genetic variations identified in our study are associated with a broad spectrum of human complex traits from the National Human Genome Research Institute catalog of published genome-wide association studies. Experimentally, we replicated miRNA-induced mRNA expression inhibition and the cis-eQTL relationship to the target gene for several identified relationships among SNPs, miRNAs, and mRNAs in an independent set of samples; furthermore, we conducted miRNA overexpression and inhibition experiments to functionally validate the miRNA-mRNA relationships. This study extends our understanding of the genetic regulation of the transcriptome and suggests that genetic variation might underlie observed relationships between miRNAs and mRNAs more commonly than has previously been appreciated.

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