Comparative Analysis of the miRNome of Bovine Milk Fat, Whey and Cells

PLoS One. 2016 Apr 21;11(4):e0154129. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0154129. eCollection 2016.


Abundant miRNAs have been identified in milk and mammary gland tissues of different species. Typically, RNA in milk can be extracted from different fractions including fat, whey and cells and the mRNA transcriptome of milk could serve as an indicator of the transcriptome of mammary gland tissue. However, it has not been adequately validated if the miRNA transcriptome of any milk fraction could be representative of that of mammary gland tissue. The objectives of this study were to (1) characterize the miRNA expression spectra from three milk fractions- fat, whey and cells; (2) compare miRNome profiles of milk fractions (fat, whey and cells) with mammary gland tissue miRNome, and (3) determine which milk fraction miRNome profile could be a better representative of the miRNome profile of mammary gland tissue. Milk from four healthy Canadian Holstein cows in mid lactation was collected and fractionated. Total RNA extracted from each fraction was used for library preparation followed by small RNA sequencing. In addition, miRNA transcripts of mammary gland tissues from twelve Holstein cows in our previous study were used to compare our data. We identified 210, 200 and 249 known miRNAs from milk fat, whey and cells, respectively, with 188 universally expressed in the three fractions. In addition, 33, 31 and 36 novel miRNAs from milk fat, whey and cells were identified, with 28 common in the three fractions. Among 20 most highly expressed miRNAs in each fraction, 14 were expressed in common and 11 were further shared with mammary gland tissue. The three milk fractions demonstrated a clear separation from each other using a hierarchical cluster analysis with milk fat and whey being most closely related. The miRNome correlation between milk fat and mammary gland tissue (rmean = 0.866) was significantly higher than the other two pairs (p < 0.01), whey/mammary gland tissue (rmean = 0.755) and milk cell/mammary gland tissue (rmean = 0.75), suggesting that milk fat could be an alternative non-invasive source of RNA in assessing miRNA activities in bovine mammary gland. Predicted target genes (1802) of 14 highly expressed miRNAs in milk fractions were enriched in fundamental cellular functions, infection, organ and tissue development. Furthermore, some miRNAs were highly enriched (FDR <0.05) in milk whey (3), cells (11) and mammary gland tissue (14) suggesting specific regulatory functions in the various fractions. In conclusion, we have obtained a comprehensive miRNA profile of the different milk fractions using high throughput sequencing. Our comparative analysis showed that miRNAs from milk fat accurately portrayed the miRNome of mammary gland tissue. Functional annotation of the top expressed miRNAs in milk confirmed their critical regulatory roles in mammary gland functions and potentially to milk recipients.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cattle
  • Cluster Analysis
  • Fats / metabolism*
  • Female
  • Gene Expression Profiling / methods*
  • Mammary Glands, Animal / metabolism
  • MicroRNAs / analysis
  • MicroRNAs / classification
  • MicroRNAs / genetics*
  • Milk / chemistry*
  • Milk / cytology
  • Reverse Transcriptase Polymerase Chain Reaction
  • Sequence Analysis, RNA / methods
  • Whey / metabolism*


  • Fats
  • MicroRNAs

Grants and funding

This work was supported by funding from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (grant number J-000733) to EIA and from National Science Foundation of China (grant number 31372282) to XZ. Ran Li was supported by a doctoral fellowship from the China Scholarship Council (201206300128). The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.