tRNA-derived fragments (tRF) are a class of potent regulatory RNAs. We mined the datasets from The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA) representing 32 cancer types with a deterministic and exhaustive pipeline for tRNA fragments. We found that mitochondrial tRNAs contribute disproportionally more tRFs than nuclear tRNAs. Through integrative analyses, we uncovered a multitude of statistically significant and context-dependent associations between the identified tRFs and mRNAs. In many of the 32 cancer types, these associations involve mRNAs from developmental processes, receptor tyrosine kinase signaling, the proteasome, and metabolic pathways that include glycolysis, oxidative phosphorylation, and ATP synthesis. Even though the pathways are common to multiple cancers, the association of specific mRNAs with tRFs depends on and differs from cancer to cancer. The associations between tRFs and mRNAs extend to genomic properties as well; specifically, tRFs are positively correlated with shorter genes that have a higher density in repeats, such as ALUs, MIRs, and ERVLs. Conversely, tRFs are negatively correlated with longer genes that have a lower repeat density, suggesting a possible dichotomy between cell proliferation and differentiation. Analyses of bladder, lung, and kidney cancer data indicate that the tRF-mRNA wiring can also depend on a patient's sex. Sex-dependent associations involve cyclin-dependent kinases in bladder cancer, the MAPK signaling pathway in lung cancer, and purine metabolism in kidney cancer. Taken together, these findings suggest diverse and wide-ranging roles for tRFs and highlight the extensive interconnections of tRFs with key cellular processes and human genomic architecture. SIGNIFICANCE: Across 32 TCGA cancer contexts, nuclear and mitochondrial tRNA fragments exhibit associations with mRNAs that belong to concrete pathways, encode proteins with particular destinations, have a biased repeat content, and are sex dependent.
©2019 American Association for Cancer Research.