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Title: Using molecular QTLs to identify cell types and causal variants for complex traits
Author: Schwartzentruber, Jeremy Andrew
ISNI:       0000 0004 7226 4216
Awarding Body: University of Cambridge
Current Institution: University of Cambridge
Date of Award: 2018
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Genetic associations have been discovered for many human complex traits, and yet for most associated loci the causal variants and molecular mechanisms remain unknown. Studies mapping quantitative trait loci (QTLs) for molecular phenotypes, such as gene expression, RNA splicing, and chromatin accessibility, provide rich data that can link variant effects in specific cell types with complex traits. These genetic effects can also now be modeled in vitro by differentiating human induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) into specific cell types, including inaccessible cell types such as those of the brain. In this thesis, I explore a range of approaches for using QTLs to identify causal variants and to link these with molecular functions and complex traits. In Chapter 2, I describe QTL mapping in 123 sensory neuronal cell lines differentiated from human iPSCs. I observed that gene expression was highly variable across iPSC-derived neuronal cultures in specific gene categories, and that a portion of this variability was explained by commonly used iPSC culture conditions, which influenced differentiation efficiency. A number of QTLs overlapped with common disease associations; however, using simulations I showed that identifying causal regulatory variants with a recall-by- genotype approach in iPSC-derived neurons is likely to require large sample sizes, even for variants with moderately large effect sizes. In Chapter 3, I developed a computational model that uses publicly available gene expression QTL data, along with molecular annotations, to generate cell type-specific probability of regulatory function (PRF) scores for each variant. I found that predictive power was improved when the model was modified to use the quantitative value of annotations. PRF scores outperformed other genome-wide scores, including CADD and GWAVA, in identifying likely causal eQTL variants. In Chapter 4, I used PRF scores to identify relevant cell types and to fine map potential causal variants using summary association statistics in six complex traits. By examining individual loci in detail, I showed how the enrichments contributing to a high PRF score are transparent, which can help to distinguish plausible causal variant predictions from model misspecification.
Supervisor: Gaffney, Daniel Sponsor: Wellcome Trust
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
Keywords: iPSCs ; gwas ; genome-wide association studies ; eQTLs ; expression quantitative trait loci ; sensory neurons ; chromatin accessibility ; gene regulation