Human Milk Cells and Lipids Conserve Numerous Known and Novel miRNAs, Some of Which Are Differentially Expressed during Lactation

PLoS One. 2016 Apr 13;11(4):e0152610. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0152610. eCollection 2016.


Human milk (HM) is rich in miRNAs, which are thought to contribute to infant protection and development. We used deep sequencing to profile miRNAs in the cell and lipid fractions of HM obtained post-feeding from 10 lactating women in months 2, 4, and 6 postpartum. In both HM fractions, 1,195 mature known miRNAs were identified, which were positively associated with the cell (p = 0.048) and lipid (p = 0.010) content of HM. An additional 5,167 novel miRNA species were predicted, of which 235 were high-confidence miRNAs. HM cells contained more known miRNAs than HM lipids (1,136 and 835 respectively, p<0.001). Although the profile of the novel miRNAs was very different between cells and lipids, with the majority conserved in the cell fraction and being mother-specific, 2/3 of the known miRNAs common between cells and lipids were similarly expressed (p>0.05). Great similarities between the two HM fractions were also found in the profile of the top 20 known miRNAs. These were largely similar also between the three lactation stages examined, as were the total miRNA concentration, and the number and expression of the known miRNAs common between cells and lipids (p>0.05). Yet, approximately a third of all known miRNAs were differentially expressed during the first 6 months of lactation (p<0.05), with more pronounced miRNA upregulation seen in month 4. These findings indicate that although the total miRNA concentration of HM cells and lipids provided to the infant does not change in first 6 months of lactation, the miRNA composition is altered, particularly in month 4 compared to months 2 and 6. This may reflect the remodeling of the gland in response to infant feeding patterns, which usually change after exclusive breastfeeding, suggesting adaptation to the infant's needs.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Female
  • Gene Expression Profiling
  • Gene Expression Regulation*
  • High-Throughput Nucleotide Sequencing
  • Humans
  • Lactation / genetics
  • Lactation / metabolism*
  • Lipids*
  • MicroRNAs / genetics
  • MicroRNAs / metabolism*
  • Milk, Human / cytology*
  • Milk, Human / metabolism*
  • Postpartum Period / genetics
  • Postpartum Period / metabolism


  • Lipids
  • MicroRNAs

Grant support

FK, CTL, PEH and DTG received an unrestricted research grant from Medela AG (Switzerland). The company had no input in designing or conducting the study or the decision to publish the manuscript. MA received a PhD scholarship from Majmaah University, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.