Transcriptome profiling of microRNA by Next-Gen deep sequencing reveals known and novel miRNA species in the lipid fraction of human breast milk

PLoS One. 2013;8(2):e50564. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0050564. Epub 2013 Feb 13.


While breast milk has unique health advantages for infants, the mechanisms by which it regulates the physiology of newborns are incompletely understood. miRNAs have been described as functioning transcellularly, and have been previously isolated in cell-free and exosomal form from bodily liquids (serum, saliva, urine) and tissues, including mammary tissue. We hypothesized that breast milk in general, and milk fat globules in particular, contain significant numbers of known and limited novel miRNA species detectable with massively parallel sequencing. Extracted RNA from lactating mothers before and following short-term treatment with recombinant human growth hormone (rhGH) was smRNA-enriched. smRNA-Seq was performed to generate 124,110,646 36-nt reads. Of these, 31,102,927 (25%) exactly matched known human miRNAs; with relaxing of stringency, 74,716,151 (60%) matched known miRNAs including 308 of the 1018 (29%) mature miRNAs (miRBase 16.0). These miRNAs are predicted to target 9074 genes; the 10 most abundant of these predicted to target 2691 genes with enrichment for transcriptional regulation of metabolic and immune responses. We identified 21 putative novel miRNAs, of which 12 were confirmed in a large validation set that included cohorts of lactating women consuming enriched diets. Of particular interest, we observed that expression of several novel miRNAs were altered by the perturbed maternal diet, notably following a high-fat intake (p<0.05). Our findings suggest that known and novel miRNAs are enriched in breast milk fat globules, and expression of several novel miRNA species is regulated by maternal diet. Based on robust pathway mapping, our data supports the notion that these maternally secreted miRNAs (stable in the milk fat globules) play a regulatory role in the infant and account in part for the health benefits of breast milk. We further speculate that regulation of these miRNA by a high fat maternal diet enables modulation of fetal metabolism to accommodate significant dietary challenges.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Female
  • Gene Expression Profiling
  • High-Throughput Nucleotide Sequencing
  • Humans
  • Lactation / genetics
  • Lactation / metabolism*
  • Lipids*
  • MicroRNAs / genetics
  • MicroRNAs / metabolism*
  • Milk, Human / metabolism*
  • Transcriptome*


  • Lipids
  • MicroRNAs