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Cell type-specific meQTL extends melanoma GWAS annotation beyond eQTL and informs melanocyte gene regulatory mechanisms

By Tongwu Zhang, Jiyeon Choi, Ramile Dilshat, Berglind Ósk Einarsdóttir, Michael A Kovacs, Mai Xu, Michael Malasky, Salma Chowdhury, Kristine Jones, D. Timothy Bishop, Alisa M Goldstein, Mark M Iles, Maria Teresa Landi, Matthew H Law, Jianxin Shi, Eiríkur Steingrímsson, Kevin M Brown

Posted 24 Mar 2021
bioRxiv DOI: 10.1101/2021.03.23.436704

While expression quantitative trait loci (eQTL) have been powerful in identifying susceptibility genes from genome-wide association studies (GWAS) findings, most trait-associated loci are not explained by eQTL alone. Alternative QTLs including DNA methylation QTL (meQTL) are emerging, but cell-type-specific meQTL using cells of disease origin has been lacking. Here we established an meQTL dataset using primary melanocytes from 106 individuals and identified 1,497,502 significant cis-meQTLs. Multi-QTL colocalization using meQTL, eQTL, and mRNA splice-junction QTL from the same individuals together with imputed methylome-wide and transcriptome-wide association studies identified susceptibility genes at 63% of melanoma GWAS loci. Among three molecular QTLs, meQTLs were the single largest contributor. To compare melanocyte meQTLs with those from malignant melanomas, we performed meQTL analysis on skin cutaneous melanomas from The Cancer Genome Atlas (n = 444). A substantial proportion of meQTL probes (45.9%) in primary melanocytes are preserved in melanomas, while a smaller fraction of eQTL genes is preserved (12.7%). Integration of melanocyte multi-QTL and melanoma meQTL identified candidate susceptibility genes at 72% of melanoma GWAS loci. Beyond GWAS annotation, meQTL-eQTL colocalization in melanocytes suggested that 841 unique genes potentially share a causal variant with a nearby methylation probe in melanocytes. Finally, melanocyte trans-meQTL identified a hotspot for rs12203592, a cis-eQTL of a transcription factor, IRF4, with 131 candidate target CpGs. Motif enrichment and IRF4 ChIPseq analysis demonstrated that these target CpGs are enriched in IRF4 binding sites, suggesting an IRF4-mediated regulatory network. Our study highlights the utility of cell-type-specific meQTL.

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