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Title: A Review of Statistical Methods for Identifying Trait-Relevant Tissues and Cell Types

Genome-wide association studies (GWASs) have identified and replicated many genetic variants that are associated with diseases and disease-related complex traits. However, the biological mechanisms underlying these identified associations remain largely elusive. Exploring the biological mechanisms underlying these associations requires identifying trait-relevant tissues and cell types, as genetic variants likely influence complex traits in a tissue- and cell type-specific manner. Recently, several statistical methods have been developed to integrate genomic data with GWASs for identifying trait-relevant tissues and cell types. These methods often rely on different genomic information and use different statistical models for trait-tissue relevance inference. Here, we present a comprehensive technical review to summarize ten existing methods for trait-tissue relevance inference. These methods make use of different genomic information that include functional annotation information, expression quantitative trait loci information, genetically regulated gene expression information, as well as gene co-expression network information. These methods also use different statistical models that range from linear mixed models to covariance network models. We hope that this review can serve as a useful reference both for methodologists who develop methods and for applied analysts who apply these methods for identifying trait relevant tissues and cell types.

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Frontiers in Genetics
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Frontiers in Genetics
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National Science Foundation
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  1. Abstract Transcriptome-wide association studies (TWASs) integrate expression quantitative trait loci (eQTLs) studies with genome-wide association studies (GWASs) to prioritize candidate target genes for complex traits. Several statistical methods have been recently proposed to improve the performance of TWASs in gene prioritization by integrating the expression regulatory information imputed from multiple tissues, and made significant achievements in improving the ability to detect gene-trait associations. Unfortunately, most existing multi-tissue methods focus on prioritization of candidate genes, and cannot directly infer the specific functional effects of candidate genes across different tissues. Here, we propose a tissue-specific collaborative mixed model (TisCoMM) for TWASs, leveraging the co-regulation of genetic variations across different tissues explicitly via a unified probabilistic model. TisCoMM not only performs hypothesis testing to prioritize gene-trait associations, but also detects the tissue-specific role of candidate target genes in complex traits. To make full use of widely available GWASs summary statistics, we extend TisCoMM to use summary-level data, namely, TisCoMM-S2. Using extensive simulation studies, we show that type I error is controlled at the nominal level, the statistical power of identifying associated genes is greatly improved, and the false-positive rate (FPR) for non-causal tissues is well controlled at decent levels. We further illustrate the benefits of our methods in applications to summary-level GWASs data of 33 complex traits. Notably, apart from better identifying potential trait-associated genes, we can elucidate the tissue-specific role of candidate target genes. The follow-up pathway analysis from tissue-specific genes for asthma shows that the immune system plays an essential function for asthma development in both thyroid and lung tissues. 
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  2. INTRODUCTION Genome-wide association studies (GWASs) have identified thousands of human genetic variants associated with diverse diseases and traits, and most of these variants map to noncoding loci with unknown target genes and function. Current approaches to understand which GWAS loci harbor causal variants and to map these noncoding regulators to target genes suffer from low throughput. With newer multiancestry GWASs from individuals of diverse ancestries, there is a pressing and growing need to scale experimental assays to connect GWAS variants with molecular mechanisms. Here, we combined biobank-scale GWASs, massively parallel CRISPR screens, and single-cell sequencing to discover target genes of noncoding variants for blood trait loci with systematic targeting and inhibition of noncoding GWAS loci with single-cell sequencing (STING-seq). RATIONALE Blood traits are highly polygenic, and GWASs have identified thousands of noncoding loci that map to candidate cis -regulatory elements (CREs). By combining CRE-silencing CRISPR perturbations and single-cell readouts, we targeted hundreds of GWAS loci in a single assay, revealing target genes in cis and in trans . For select CREs that regulate target genes, we performed direct variant insertion. Although silencing the CRE can identify the target gene, direct variant insertion can identify magnitude and direction of effect on gene expression for the GWAS variant. In select cases in which the target gene was a transcription factor or microRNA, we also investigated the gene-regulatory networks altered upon CRE perturbation and how these networks differ across blood cell types. RESULTS We inhibited candidate CREs from fine-mapped blood trait GWAS variants (from ~750,000 individual of diverse ancestries) in human erythroid progenitors. In total, we targeted 543 variants (254 loci) mapping to candidate CREs, generating multimodal single-cell data including transcriptome, direct CRISPR gRNA capture, and cell surface proteins. We identified target genes in cis (within 500 kb) for 134 CREs. In most cases, we found that the target gene was the closest gene and that specific enhancer-associated biochemical hallmarks (H3K27ac and accessible chromatin) are essential for CRE function. Using multiple perturbations at the same locus, we were able to distinguished between causal variants from noncausal variants in linkage disequilibrium. For a subset of validated CREs, we also inserted specific GWAS variants using base-editing STING-seq (beeSTING-seq) and quantified the effect size and direction of GWAS variants on gene expression. Given our transcriptome-wide data, we examined dosage effects in cis and trans in cases in which the cis target is a transcription factor or microRNA. We found that trans target genes are also enriched for GWAS loci, and identified gene clusters within trans gene networks with distinct biological functions and expression patterns in primary human blood cells. CONCLUSION In this work, we investigated noncoding GWAS variants at scale, identifying target genes in single cells. These methods can help to address the variant-to-function challenges that are a barrier for translation of GWAS findings (e.g., drug targets for diseases with a genetic basis) and greatly expand our ability to understand mechanisms underlying GWAS loci. Identifying causal variants and their target genes with STING-seq. Uncovering causal variants and their target genes or function are a major challenge for GWASs. STING-seq combines perturbation of noncoding loci with multimodal single-cell sequencing to profile hundreds of GWAS loci in parallel. This approach can identify target genes in cis and trans , measure dosage effects, and decipher gene-regulatory networks. 
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  3. Background

    Genome‐wide association studies (GWASs) have identified thousands of genetic variants that are associated with many complex traits. However, their biological mechanisms remain largely unknown. Transcriptome‐wide association studies (TWAS) have been recently proposed as an invaluable tool for investigating the potential gene regulatory mechanisms underlying variant‐trait associations. Specifically, TWAS integrate GWAS with expression mapping studies based on a common set of variants and aim to identify genes whose GReX is associated with the phenotype. Various methods have been developed for performing TWAS and/or similar integrative analysis. Each such method has a different modeling assumption and many were initially developed to answer different biological questions. Consequently, it is not straightforward to understand their modeling property from a theoretical perspective.


    We present a technical review on thirteen TWAS methods. Importantly, we show that these methods can all be viewed as two‐sample Mendelian randomization (MR) analysis, which has been widely applied in GWASs for examining the causal effects of exposure on outcome. Viewing different TWAS methods from an MR perspective provides us a unique angle for understanding their benefits and pitfalls. We systematically introduce the MR analysis framework, explain how features of the GWAS and expression data influence the adaptation of MR for TWAS, and re‐interpret the modeling assumptions made in different TWAS methods from an MR angle. We finally describe future directions for TWAS methodology development.


    We hope that this review would serve as a useful reference for both methodologists who develop TWAS methods and practitioners who perform TWAS analysis.

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  4. INTRODUCTION Thousands of genetic variants have been associated with human diseases and traits through genome-wide association studies (GWASs). Translating these discoveries into improved therapeutics requires discerning which variants among hundreds of candidates are causally related to disease risk. To date, only a handful of causal variants have been confirmed. Here, we leverage 100 million years of mammalian evolution to address this major challenge. RATIONALE We compared genomes from hundreds of mammals and identified bases with unusually few variants (evolutionarily constrained). Constraint is a measure of functional importance that is agnostic to cell type or developmental stage. It can be applied to investigate any heritable disease or trait and is complementary to resources using cell type– and time point–specific functional assays like Encyclopedia of DNA Elements (ENCODE) and Genotype-Tissue Expression (GTEx). RESULTS Using constraint calculated across placental mammals, 3.3% of bases in the human genome are significantly constrained, including 57.6% of coding bases. Most constrained bases (80.7%) are noncoding. Common variants (allele frequency ≥ 5%) and low-frequency variants (0.5% ≤ allele frequency < 5%) are depleted for constrained bases (1.85 versus 3.26% expected by chance, P < 2.2 × 10 −308 ). Pathogenic ClinVar variants are more constrained than benign variants ( P < 2.2 × 10 −16 ). The most constrained common variants are more enriched for disease single-nucleotide polymorphism (SNP)–heritability in 63 independent GWASs. The enrichment of SNP-heritability in constrained regions is greater (7.8-fold) than previously reported in mammals and is even higher in primates (11.1-fold). It exceeds the enrichment of SNP-heritability in nonsynonymous coding variants (7.2-fold) and fine-mapped expression quantitative trait loci (eQTL)–SNPs (4.8-fold). The enrichment peaks near constrained bases, with a log-linear decrease of SNP-heritability enrichment as a function of the distance to a constrained base. Zoonomia constraint scores improve functionally informed fine-mapping. Variants at sites constrained in mammals and primates have greater posterior inclusion probabilities and higher per-SNP contributions. In addition, using both constraint and functional annotations improves polygenic risk score accuracy across a range of traits. Finally, incorporating constraint information into the analysis of noncoding somatic variants in medulloblastomas identifies new candidate driver genes. CONCLUSION Genome-wide measures of evolutionary constraint can help discern which variants are functionally important. This information may accelerate the translation of genomic discoveries into the biological, clinical, and therapeutic knowledge that is required to understand and treat human disease. Using evolutionary constraint in genomic studies of human diseases. ( A ) Constraint was calculated across 240 mammal species, including 43 primates (teal line). ( B ) Pathogenic ClinVar variants ( N = 73,885) are more constrained across mammals than benign variants ( N = 231,642; P < 2.2 × 10 −16 ). ( C ) More-constrained bases are more enriched for trait-associated variants (63 GWASs). ( D ) Enrichment of heritability is higher in constrained regions than in functional annotations (left), even in a joint model with 106 annotations (right). ( E ) Fine-mapping (PolyFun) using a model that includes constraint scores identifies an experimentally validated association at rs1421085. Error bars represent 95% confidence intervals. BMI, body mass index; LF, low frequency; PIP, posterior inclusion probability. 
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This is due to an overwhelming number of cases where nucleotides turn over at a high rate, but a similar combination of transcription factor binding sites and other sequence features can be maintained across millions of years of evolution, allowing the function of the enhancer to be conserved in a particular cell type or tissue. Experimentally measuring the function of orthologous enhancers across dozens of species is currently infeasible, but new machine learning methods make it possible to make reliable sequence-based predictions of enhancer function across species in specific tissues and cell types. RESULTS To overcome the limits of studying individual nucleotides, we developed the Tissue-Aware Conservation Inference Toolkit (TACIT). Rather than measuring the extent to which individual nucleotides are conserved across a region, TACIT uses machine learning to test whether the function of a given part of the genome is likely to be conserved. More specifically, convolutional neural networks learn the tissue- or cell type–specific regulatory code connecting genome sequence to enhancer activity using candidate enhancers identified from only a few species. This approach allows us to accurately associate differences between species in tissue or cell type–specific enhancer activity with genome sequence differences at enhancer orthologs. We then connect these predictions of enhancer function to phenotypes across hundreds of mammals in a way that accounts for species’ phylogenetic relatedness. We applied TACIT to identify candidate enhancers from motor cortex and parvalbumin neuron open chromatin data that are associated with brain size relative to body size, solitary living, and vocal learning across 222 mammals. Our results include the identification of multiple candidate enhancers associated with brain size relative to body size, several of which are located in linear or three-dimensional proximity to genes whose protein-coding mutations have been implicated in microcephaly or macrocephaly in humans. We also identified candidate enhancers associated with the evolution of solitary living near a gene implicated in separation anxiety and other enhancers associated with the evolution of vocal learning ability. We obtained distinct results for bulk motor cortex and parvalbumin neurons, demonstrating the value in applying TACIT to both bulk tissue and specific minority cell type populations. To facilitate future analyses of our results and applications of TACIT, we released predicted enhancer activity of >400,000 candidate enhancers in each of 222 mammals and their associations with the phenotypes we investigated. 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