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Human embryonic stem cells (ESCs) offer a promising therapeutic approach for osteoarthritis (OA). The unlimited source of cells capable of differentiating to chondrocytes has potential for repairing damaged cartilage or to generate disease models via gene editing. However their use is limited by the efficiency of chondrogenic differentiation. An improved understanding of the transcriptional and post-transcriptional regulation of chondrogenesis will enable us to improve hESC chondrogenic differentiation protocols. Small RNA-seq and whole transcriptome sequencing was performed on distinct stages of hESC-directed chondrogenesis. This revealed significant changes in the expression of several microRNAs including upregulation of known cartilage associated microRNAs and those transcribed from the Hox complexes, and the downregulation of pluripotency associated microRNAs. Integration of miRomes and transcriptomes generated during hESC-directed chondrogenesis identified key functionally related clusters of co-expressed microRNAs and protein coding genes, associated with pluripotency, primitive streak, limb development and extracellular matrix. Analysis identified regulators of hESC-directed chondrogenesis such as miR-29c-3p with 10 of its established targets identified as co-regulated ‘ECM organisation’ genes and miR-22-3p which is highly co-expressed with ECM genes and may regulate these genes indirectly by targeting the chondrogenic regulators SP1 and HDAC4. We identified several upregulated transcription factors including HOXA9/A10/D13 involved in limb patterning and RELA, JUN and NFAT5, which have targets enriched with ECM associated genes. We have developed an unbiased approach for integrating transcriptome and miRome using protein-protein interactions, transcription factor regulation and miRNA target interactions and identified key regulatory networks prominent in hESC chondrogenesis.

Original languageEnglish
Article number4744
JournalScientific Reports
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 16 Mar 2020


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