Dissecting the Functional Impacts of Non-Coding Genetic Variation
A large proportion of the variation in traits between individuals can be attributed to variation in the nucleotide sequence of the genome. The most commonly studied traits in human genetics are related to disease and disease susceptibility. Although scientists have identified genetic causes for over 4,000 monogenic diseases, the underlying mechanisms of many highly prevalent multifactorial inheritance disorders such as diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular disease remain largely unknown. Identifying genetic mechanisms for complex traits has been challenging because most of the variants are located outside of protein-coding regions, and determining the effects of such non-coding variants remains difficult. In this dissertation, I evaluate the hypothesis that such non-coding variants contribute to human traits and diseases by altering the regulation of genes rather than the sequence of those genes. I will specifically focus on studies to determine the functional impacts of genetic variation associated with two related complex traits: gestational hyperglycemia and fetal adiposity. At the genomic locus associated with maternal hyperglycemia, we found that genetic variation in regulatory elements altered the expression of the HKDC1 gene. Furthermore, we demonstrated that HKDC1 phosphorylates glucose in vitro and in vivo, thus demonstrating that HKDC1 is a fifth human hexokinase gene. At the fetal-adiposity associated locus, we identified variants that likely alter VEPH1 expression in preadipocytes during differentiation. To make such studies of regulatory variation high-throughput and routine, we developed POP-STARR, a novel high throughput reporter assay that can empirically measure the effects of regulatory variants directly from patient DNA. By combining targeted genome capture technologies with STARR-seq, we assayed thousands of haplotypes from 760 individuals in a single experiment. We subsequently used POP-STARR to identify three key features of regulatory variants: that regulatory variants typically have weak effects on gene expression; that the effects of regulatory variants are often coordinated with respect to disease-risk, suggesting a general mechanism by which the weak effects can together have phenotypic impact; and that nucleotide transversions have larger impacts on enhancer activity than transitions. Together, the findings presented here demonstrate successful strategies for determining the regulatory mechanisms underlying genetic associations with human traits and diseases, and value of doing so for driving novel biological discovery.
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