Small RNAs are functional molecules that modulate mRNA transcripts and have been implicated in the aetiology of several common diseases. However, little is known about the extent of their variability within the human population. Here, we characterise the extent, causes, and effects of naturally occurring variation in expression and sequence of small RNAs from adipose tissue in relation to genotype, gene expression, and metabolic traits in the MuTHER reference cohort. We profiled the expression of 15 to 30 base pair RNA molecules in subcutaneous adipose tissue from 131 individuals using high-throughput sequencing, and quantified levels of 591 microRNAs and small nucleolar RNAs. We identified three genetic variants and three RNA editing events. Highly expressed small RNAs are more conserved within mammals than average, as are those with highly variable expression. We identified 14 genetic loci significantly associated with nearby small RNA expression levels, seven of which also regulate an mRNA transcript level in the same region. In addition, these loci are enriched for variants significant in genome-wide association studies for body mass index. Contrary to expectation, we found no evidence for negative correlation between expression level of a microRNA and its target mRNAs. Trunk fat mass, body mass index, and fasting insulin were associated with more than twenty small RNA expression levels each, while fasting glucose had no significant associations. This study highlights the similar genetic complexity and shared genetic control of small RNA and mRNA transcripts, and gives a quantitative picture of small RNA expression variation in the human population.
Genetic information is transmitted to the cell only through RNA molecules. A special class of RNAs is comprised of the small (up to 30 nucleotide) ones, known to be potent regulators of various cellular processes. At the same time, they have not been as widely studied as messenger RNAs—we do not know how much variation in their sequence and expression level occurs naturally in human populations or how this variability influences other traits. We measured small RNA levels and genetic variability in fat tissue from 131 individuals by high-throughput sequencing. We could associate the expression levels with genetic background of the individuals, as well as changes in metabolic traits. Surprisingly, we found no large scale influence of small RNA variation on mRNA levels, their main regulatory target. Overall, our study is the first to give a quantitative picture of the naturally occurring variation in these important regulatory molecules in human fat tissue.