The past two decades of microRNA (miRNA) research has solidified the role of these small non-coding RNAs as key regulators of many biological processes and promising biomarkers for disease. The concurrent development in high-throughput profiling technology has further advanced our understanding of the impact of their dysregulation on a global scale. Currently, next-generation sequencing is the platform of choice for the discovery and quantification of miRNAs. Despite this, there is no clear consensus on how the data should be preprocessed before conducting downstream analyses.
Often overlooked, data preprocessing is an essential step in data analysis: the presence of unreliable features and noise can affect the conclusions drawn from downstream analyses. Using a spike-in dilution study, researchers from the University of Toronto evaluated the effects of several general-purpose aligners (BWA, Bowtie, Bowtie 2 and Novoalign), and normalization methods (counts-per-million, total count scaling, upper quartile scaling, Trimmed Mean of M, DESeq, linear regression, cyclic loess and quantile) with respect to the final miRNA count data distribution, variance, bias and accuracy of differential expression analysis. They make practical recommendations on the optimal preprocessing methods for the extraction and interpretation of miRNA count data from small RNA-sequencing experiments.