Characterization of human plasma-derived exosomal RNAs by RNA-Seq

Exosomes, endosome-derived membrane microvesicles, contain specific RNA transcripts that are thought to be involved in cell-cell communication. These RNA transcripts have great potential as disease biomarkers. To characterize exosomal RNA profiles systemically, a team led by researchers at the Medical College of Wisconsin performed RNA sequencing analysis using three human plasma samples and evaluated the efficacies of small RNA library preparation protocols from three manufacturers. In all they evaluated 14 libraries (7 replicates).


From the 14 size-selected sequencing libraries, the researchers obtained a total of 101.8 million raw single-end reads, an average of about 7.27 million reads per library. Sequence analysis showed that there was a diverse collection of the exosomal RNA species among which microRNAs (miRNAs) were the most abundant, making up over 42.32% of all raw reads and 76.20% of all mappable reads. At the current read depth, 593 miRNAs were detectable. The five most common miRNAs (miR-99a-5p, miR-128, miR-124-3p, miR-22-3p, and miR-99b-5p) collectively accounted for 48.99% of all mappable miRNA sequences. MiRNA target gene enrichment analysis suggested that the highly abundant miRNAs may play an important role in biological functions such as protein phosphorylation, RNA splicing, chromosomal abnormality, and angiogenesis. From the unknown RNA sequences, they predicted 185 potential miRNA candidates. Furthermore, they detected significant fractions of other RNA species including ribosomal RNA (9.16% of all mappable counts), long non-coding RNA (3.36%), piwi-interacting RNA (1.31%), transfer RNA (1.24%), small nuclear RNA (0.18%), and small nucleolar RNA (0.01%); fragments of coding sequence (1.36%), 5’ untranslated region (0.21%), and 3’ untranslated region (0.54%) were also present. In addition to the RNA composition of the libraries, they found that the three tested commercial kits generated a sufficient number of DNA fragments for sequencing but each had significant bias toward capturing specific RNAs.


This study demonstrated that a wide variety of RNA species are embedded in the circulating vesicles. To the authors knowledge, this is the first report that applied deep sequencing to discover and characterize profiles of plasma-derived exosomal RNAs. Further characterization of these extracellular RNAs in diverse human populations will provide reference profiles and open new doors for the development of blood-based biomarkers for human diseases.

  • Huang X, Yuan T, Tschannen M, Sun Z, Jacob H, Du M, Liang M, Dittmar RL, Liu Y, Liang M, Kohli M, Thibodeau SN, Boardman L, Wang L. (2013) Characterization of human plasma-derived exosomal RNAs by deep sequencing. BMC Genomics 14(1), 319. [article]
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