regQTLs: Single nucleotide polymorphisms that modulate microRNA regulation of gene expression in tumors

Gary Wilk, Rosemary Braun*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

21 Scopus citations


Genome-wide association studies (GWAS) have identified single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) associated with trait diversity and disease susceptibility, yet their functional properties often remain unclear. It has been hypothesized that SNPs in microRNA binding sites may disrupt gene regulation by microRNAs (miRNAs), short non-coding RNAs that bind to mRNA and downregulate the target gene. While several studies have predicted the location of SNPs in miRNA binding sites, to date there has been no comprehensive analysis of their impact on miRNA regulation. Here we investigate the functional properties of genetic variants and their effects on miRNA regulation of gene expression in cancer. Our analysis is motivated by the hypothesis that distinct alleles may cause differential binding (from miRNAs to mRNAs or from transcription factors to DNA) and change the expression of genes. We previously identified pathways—systems of genes conferring specific cell functions—that are dysregulated by miRNAs in cancer, by comparing miRNA–pathway associations between healthy and tumor tissue. We draw on these results as a starting point to assess whether SNPs on dysregulated pathways are responsible for miRNA dysregulation of individual genes in tumors. Using an integrative regression analysis that incorporates miRNA expression, mRNA expression, and SNP genotype data, we identify functional SNPs that we term “regulatory QTLs (regQTLs)”: loci whose alleles impact the regulation of genes by miRNAs. We apply the method to breast, liver, lung, and prostate cancer data from The Cancer Genome Atlas, and provide a tool to explore the findings.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere1007837
JournalPLoS genetics
Issue number12
StatePublished - Dec 2018

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Molecular Biology
  • Genetics
  • Genetics(clinical)
  • Cancer Research


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