Journal club of one: ”An expanded view of complex traits: from polygenic to omnigenic”

An expanded view of complex traits: from polygenic to omnigenic” by Boyle, Yang & Pritchard (2017) came out recently in Cell. It has been all over Twitter, and I’m sure it will influence a lot of people’s thinking — rightfully so. It is a good read, pulls in a lot of threads, and has a nice blend of data analysis and reasoning. It’s good. Go read it!

The paper argues that for a lot of quantitative traits — specifically human diseases and height — almost every gene will be associated with every trait. More than that, almost every gene will be causally involved in every trait, most in indirect ways.

It continues with the kind of analysis used in Pickrell (2014), Finucane & al (2015) among many others, that break genome-wide association down down by genome annotation. How much variability can we attribute to variants in open chromatin regions? How much to genes annotated as ”protein bindning”? And so on.

These analyses point towards gene regulation being important, but not that strongly towards particular annotation terms or pathways. The authors take this to mean that, while genetic mapping, including GWAS, finds causally involved genes, it will not necessarily find ”relevant” genes. That is, not necessarily genes that are the central regulators of the trait. That may be a problem if you want to use genetic mapping to find drug targets, pathways to engineer, or similar.

This observation must speak to anyone who has looked at a list of genes from some mapping effort and thought: ”well, that is mostly genes we know nothing about … and something related to cancer”.

They write:

In summary, for a variety of traits, the largest-effect variants are modestly enriched in specific genes or pathways that may play direct roles in disease. However, the SNPs that contribute the bulk of the heritability tend to be spread across the genome and are not near genes with disease-specific functions. The clearest pattern is that the association signal is broadly enriched in regions that are transcriptionally active or involved in transcriptional regulation in disease-relevant cell types but absent from regions that are transcriptionally inactive in those cell types. For typical traits, huge numbers of variants contribute to heritability, in striking consistency with Fisher’s century-old infinitesimal model.

I summary: it’s universal pleiotropy. I don’t think there is any reason to settle on ”cellular” networks exclusively. After all, cells in a multicellular organism share a common pool of energy and nutrients, and exchange all kinds of signalling molecules. This agrees with classical models and the thinking in evolutionary genetics (see Rockman & Paaby 2013). Or look at this expression QTL and gene network study in aspen (Mähler & al 2017): the genes with eQTL tend to be peripheral, not network hub genes.

It’s a bit like in behaviour genetics, where people are fond of making up these elaborate hypothetical causal stories: if eyesight is heritable, and children with bad eyesight get glasses, and the way you treat a child who wears glasses somehow reinforces certain behaviours, so that children who wear glasses grow up to score a bit better on certain tests — are the eyesight variants also ”intelligence variants”? This is supposed to be a reductio ad absurdum of the idea of calling anything an ”intelligence variant” … But I suspect that this is what genetic causation, when fully laid out, will sometimes look like. It can be messy. It can involve elements that we don’t think of as ”relevant” to the trait.

There are caveats, of course:

One reason that there is a clearer enrichment of variant-level annotation such as open chromatin than in gene-level annotation may be that the resolution is higher. We don’t really know that much about how molecular variation translates to higher level trait variation. And let’s not forget that for most GWAS hits, we don’t know the causative gene.

They suggest defining ”core genes” like this: ”conditional on the genotype and expres-
sion levels of all core genes, the genotypes and expression levels of peripheral genes no longer matter”. Core genes are genes that d-separate the peripheral genes from a trait. That makes sense. Some small number of genes may be necessary molecular intermediates for a trait. But as far as I can tell, it doesn’t follow that useful biological information only comes from studying core genes, nor does it follow that we can easily tell if we’ve hit a core or a peripheral gene.

Also, there are quantitative genetics applications of GWAS data that are agnostic of pathways and genes. If we want to use genetics for prediction, for precision medicine etc, we do not really need to know the functions of the causative genes. We need big cohorts, well defined trait measurements, good coverage of genetic variants, and a good idea of environmental risk factors to feed into prediction models.

It’s pretty entertaining to see the popular articles about this paper, and the juxtaposition of quotes like ”that all those big, expensive genome-wide association studies may wind up being little more than a waste of time” (Gizmodo) with researchers taking the opportunity to bring up up their favourite hypotheses about missing heritability — even if it’s not the same people saying both things. Because if we want to study rare variants, or complex epistatic interactions, or epigenomics, or what have you, the studies will have to be just as big and expensive, probably even more so.

Just please don’t call it ”omnigenetics”.


Boyle, Evan A., Yang I. Li, and Jonathan K. Pritchard. ”An Expanded View of Complex Traits: From Polygenic to Omnigenic.” Cell 169.7 (2017): 1177-1186.



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