Systems genetics identifies miRNA-mediated regulation of host response in COVID-19.
BACKGROUND: Individuals infected with SARS-CoV-2 vary greatly in their disease severity, ranging from asymptomatic infection to severe disease. The regulation of gene expression is an important mechanism in the host immune response and can modulate the outcome of the disease. miRNAs play important roles in post-transcriptional regulation with consequences on downstream molecular and cellular host immune response processes. The nature and magnitude of miRNA perturbations associated with blood phenotypes and intensive care unit (ICU) admission in COVID-19 are poorly understood. RESULTS: We combined multi-omics profiling-genotyping, miRNA and RNA expression, measured at the time of hospital admission soon after the onset of COVID-19 symptoms-with phenotypes from electronic health records to understand how miRNA expression contributes to variation in disease severity in a diverse cohort of 259 unvaccinated patients in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. We analyzed 62 clinical variables and expression levels of 632 miRNAs measured at admission and identified 97 miRNAs associated with 8 blood phenotypes significantly associated with later ICU admission. Integrative miRNA-mRNA cross-correlation analysis identified multiple miRNA-mRNA-blood endophenotype associations and revealed the effect of miR-143-3p on neutrophil count mediated by the expression of its target gene BCL2. We report 168 significant cis-miRNA expression quantitative trait loci, 57 of which implicate miRNAs associated with either ICU admission or a blood endophenotype. CONCLUSIONS: This systems genetics study has given rise to a genomic picture of the architecture of whole blood miRNAs in unvaccinated COVID-19 patients and pinpoints post-transcriptional regulation as a potential mechanism that impacts blood traits underlying COVID-19 severity. The results also highlight the impact of host genetic regulatory control of miRNA expression in early stages of COVID-19 disease.