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JMG, Humans, Gene Regulatory Networks, Genome-Wide Association Study, Quantitative Trait Loci, Chromatin, Phenotype, Polymorphism, Single Nucleotide







This work was supported by NIH (R00MH102357, U54EB020403, R01MH118349, R01MH120125).


BACKGROUND: Genetic variation influences both chromatin accessibility, assessed in chromatin accessibility quantitative trait loci (caQTL) studies, and gene expression, assessed in expression QTL (eQTL) studies. Genetic variants can impact either nearby genes (cis-eQTLs) or distal genes (trans-eQTLs). Colocalization between caQTL and eQTL, or cis- and trans-eQTLs suggests that they share causal variants. However, pairwise colocalization between these molecular QTLs does not guarantee a causal relationship. Mediation analysis can be applied to assess the evidence supporting causality versus independence between molecular QTLs. Given that the function of QTLs can be cell-type-specific, we performed mediation analyses to find epigenetic and distal regulatory causal pathways for genes within two major cell types of the developing human cortex, progenitors and neurons.

RESULTS: We find that the expression of 168 and 38 genes is mediated by chromatin accessibility in progenitors and neurons, respectively. We also find that the expression of 11 and 12 downstream genes is mediated by upstream genes in progenitors and neurons. Moreover, we discover that a genetic locus associated with inter-individual differences in brain structure shows evidence for mediation of SLC26A7 through chromatin accessibility, identifying molecular mechanisms of a common variant association to a brain trait.

CONCLUSIONS: In this study, we identify cell-type-specific causal gene regulatory networks whereby the impacts of variants on gene expression were mediated by chromatin accessibility or distal gene expression. Identification of these causal paths will enable identifying and prioritizing actionable regulatory targets perturbing these key processes during neurodevelopment.


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