Identification of microRNA expression quantitative trait loci (miR-eQTL) can yield insights into regulatory mechanisms of microRNA transcription, and can help elucidate the role of microRNA as mediators of complex traits. Here we present a miR-eQTL mapping study of whole blood from 5,239 individuals, and identify 5,269 cis-miR-eQTLs for 76 mature microRNAs. Forty-nine per cent of cis-miR-eQTLs are located 300–500 kb upstream of their associated intergenic microRNAs, suggesting that distal regulatory elements may affect the interindividual variability in microRNA expression levels. We find that cis-miR-eQTLs are highly enriched for cis-mRNA-eQTLs and regulatory single nucleotide polymorphisms. Among 243 cis-miR-eQTLs that were reported to be associated with complex traits in prior genome-wide association studies, many cis-miR-eQTLs miRNAs display differential expression in relation to the corresponding trait (for example, rs7115089, miR-125b-5p and high-density lipoprotein cholesterol). Our study provides a roadmap for understanding the genetic basis of miRNA expression, and sheds light on miRNA involvement in a variety of complex traits.
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