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Leveraging allele-specific expression to refine fine-mapping for eQTL studies

By Jennifer Zou, Farhad Hormozdiari, Brandon Jew, Jason Ernst, Jae Hoon Sul, Eleazar Eskin

Posted 31 Jan 2018
bioRxiv DOI: 10.1101/257279

Many disease risk loci identified in genome-wide association studies are present in non-coding regions of the genome. It is hypothesized that these variants affect complex traits by acting as expression quantitative trait loci (eQTLs) that influence expression of nearby genes. This indicates that many causal variants for complex traits are likely to be causal variants for gene expression. Hence, identifying causal variants for gene expression is important for elucidating the genetic basis of not only gene expression but also complex traits. However, detecting causal variants is challenging due to complex genetic correlation among variants known as linkage disequilibrium (LD) and the presence of multiple causal variants within a locus. Although several fine-mapping approaches have been developed to overcome these challenges, they may produce large sets of putative causal variants when true causal variants are in high LD with many non-causal variants. In eQTL studies, there is an additional source of information that can be used to improve fine-mapping called allele-specific expression (ASE) that measures imbalance in gene expression due to different alleles. In this work, we develop a novel statistical method that leverages both ASE and eQTL information to detect causal variants that regulate gene expression. We illustrate through simulations and application to the Genotype-Tissue Expression (GTEx) dataset that our method identifies the true causal variants with higher specificity than an approach that uses only eQTL information. In the GTEx dataset, our method achieves the median reduction rate of 11% in the number of putative causal variants.

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