Transcriptomic signatures across human tissues identify functional rare genetic variation

The human genome contains tens of thousands of rare (minor allele frequency <1%) variants, some of which contribute to disease risk. Using 838 samples with whole-genome and multitissue transcriptome sequencing data in the Genotype-Tissue Expression (GTEx) project version 8, GTEx Consortium researchers assessed how rare genetic variants contribute to extreme patterns in gene expression (eOutliers), allelic expression (aseOutliers), and alternative splicing (sOutliers). The researchers integrated these three signals across 49 tissues with genomic annotations to prioritize high-impact rare variants (RVs) that associate with human traits.

Outlier gene expression aids in identifying functional RVs. Transcriptome sequencing provides diverse measurements beyond gene expression, including allele-specific expression and alternative splicing, which can provide additional insight into RV functional effects.

After identifying multitissue eOutliers, aseOutliers, and sOutliers, the researchers found that outlier individuals of each type were significantly more likely to carry an RV near the corresponding gene. Among eOutliers, they observed strong enrichment of rare structural variants. sOutliers were particularly enriched for RVs that disrupted or created a splicing consensus sequence. aseOutliers provided the strongest enrichment signal when evaluated from just a single tissue.

The researchers developed Watershed, a probabilistic model for personal genome interpretation that improves over standard genomic annotation–based methods for scoring RVs by integrating these three transcriptomic signals from the same individual and replicates in an independent cohort.

To assess whether outlier RVs identified in GTEx associate with traits, they evaluated these variants for association with diverse traits in the UK Biobank, the Million Veterans Program, and the Jackson Heart Study. They found that transcriptome-assisted prioritization identified RVs with larger trait effect sizes and were better predictors of effect size than genomic annotation alone.

Transcriptomic signatures identify functional rare genetic variation

The research team identified genes in individuals that show outlier expression, allele-specific expression, or alternative splicing and assessed enrichment of nearby rare variation. They integrated these three outlier signals with genomic annotation data to prioritize functional RVs and to intersect those variants with disease loci to identify potential RV trait associations.

With >800 genomes matched with transcriptomes across 49 tissues, the researchers were able to study RVs that underlie extreme changes in the transcriptome. To capture the diversity of these extreme changes, they developed and integrated approaches to identify expression, allele-specific expression, and alternative splicing outliers, and characterized the RV landscape underlying each outlier signal. They demonstrate that personal genome interpretation and RV discovery is enhanced by using these signals. This approach provides a new means to integrate a richer set of functional RVs into models of genetic burden, improve disease gene identification, and enable the delivery of precision genomics.

Ferraro NM, Strober BJ, Einson J et al. (2020) Transcriptomic signatures across human tissues identify functional rare genetic variation. Science 369(6509); eaaz5900. [article]

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