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Open Access Highly Accessed Methodology article

Inferring the perturbed microRNA regulatory networks from gene expression data using a network propagation based method

Ting Wang, Jin Gu* and Yanda Li

Author Affiliations

MOE Key Laboratory of Bioinformatics, TNLIST Bioinformatics Division & Center for Synthetic and Systems Biology, Department of Automation, Tsinghua University, Beijing 100084, China

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BMC Bioinformatics 2014, 15:255  doi:10.1186/1471-2105-15-255

Published: 29 July 2014



MicroRNAs (miRNAs) are a class of endogenous small regulatory RNAs. Identifications of the dys-regulated or perturbed miRNAs and their key target genes are important for understanding the regulatory networks associated with the studied cellular processes. Several computational methods have been developed to infer the perturbed miRNA regulatory networks by integrating genome-wide gene expression data and sequence-based miRNA-target predictions. However, most of them only use the expression information of the miRNA direct targets, rarely considering the secondary effects of miRNA perturbation on the global gene regulatory networks.


We proposed a network propagation based method to infer the perturbed miRNAs and their key target genes by integrating gene expressions and global gene regulatory network information. The method used random walk with restart in gene regulatory networks to model the network effects of the miRNA perturbation. Then, it evaluated the significance of the correlation between the network effects of the miRNA perturbation and the gene differential expression levels with a forward searching strategy. Results show that our method outperformed several compared methods in rediscovering the experimentally perturbed miRNAs in cancer cell lines. Then, we applied it on a gene expression dataset of colorectal cancer clinical patient samples and inferred the perturbed miRNA regulatory networks of colorectal cancer, including several known oncogenic or tumor-suppressive miRNAs, such as miR-17, miR-26 and miR-145.


Our network propagation based method takes advantage of the network effect of the miRNA perturbation on its target genes. It is a useful approach to infer the perturbed miRNAs and their key target genes associated with the studied biological processes using gene expression data.

MicroRNA; Gene regulatory networks; Network analysis; Gene expression; Cancer