MicroRNAs (miRNAs) are key components of the gene regulatory network in many species. During the past few years, these regulatory elements have been shown to be involved in an increasing number and range of diseases. Consequently, the compilation of a comprehensive map of natural variability in healthy population seems an obvious requirement for future research on miRNA-related pathologies.
Data on 14 populations from the 1000 Genomes Project were analysed, along with new data extracted from 60 exomes of healthy individuals from a southern Spain population, sequenced in the context of the Medical Genome Project, to derive an accurate map of miRNA variability.
Despite the common belief that miRNAs are highly conserved elements, analysis of the sequences of the 1,152 individuals indicated that the observed level of variability is double what was expected. A total of 527 variants were found. Among these, 45 variants affected the recognition region of the corresponding miRNA and were found in 43 different miRNAs, 26 of which are known to be involved in 57 diseases. Different parts of the mature structure of the miRNA were affected to different degrees by variants, which suggests the existence of a selective pressure related to the relative functional impact of the change. Moreover, 41 variants showed a significant deviation from the Hardy-Weinberg equilibrium, which supports the existence of a selective process against some alleles. The average number of variants per individual in miRNAs was 28.
Despite an expectation that miRNAs would be highly conserved genomic elements, our study reports a level of variability comparable to that observed for coding genes.
Paper: Genome Medicine