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Inferring Relevant Cell Types For Complex Traits Using Single-Cell Gene Expression

By Diego Calderon, Anand Bhaskar, David A. Knowles, David Golan, Towfique Raj, Audrey Q. Fu, Jonathan K. Pritchard

Posted 10 May 2017
bioRxiv DOI: 10.1101/136283 (published DOI: 10.1016/j.ajhg.2017.09.009)

Previous studies have prioritized trait-relevant cell types by looking for an enrichment of GWAS signal within functional regions. However, these studies are limited in cell resolution by the lack of functional annotations from difficult-to-characterize or rare cell populations. Measurement of single-cell gene expression has become a popular method for characterizing novel cell types, and yet, hardly any work exists linking single-cell RNA-seq to phenotypes of interest. To address this deficiency, we present RolyPoly, a regression-based polygenic model that can prioritize trait-relevant cell types and genes from GWAS summary statistics and single-cell RNA-seq. We demonstrate RolyPoly's accuracy through simulation and validate previously known tissue-trait associations. We discover a significant association between microglia and late-onset Alzheimer's disease, and an association between oligodendrocytes and replicating fetal cortical cells with schizophrenia. Additionally, RolyPoly computes a trait-relevance score for each gene which reflects the importance of expression specific to a cell type. We found that differentially expressed genes in the prefrontal cortex of Alzheimer's patients were significantly enriched for highly ranked genes by RolyPoly gene scores. Overall, our method represents a powerful framework for understanding the effect of common variants on cell types contributing to complex traits.

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