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Inferring expressed genes by whole-genome sequencing of plasma DNA

By Peter Ulz, Gerhard G. Thallinger, Martina Auer, Ricarda Graf, Karl Kashofer, Stephan W Jahn, Luca Abete, Gunda Pristauz, Edgar Petru, Jochen B. Geigl, Ellen Heitzer, Michael R. Speicher

Posted 20 Apr 2016
bioRxiv DOI: 10.1101/049478 (published DOI: 10.1038/ng.3648)

The analysis of cell-free DNA (cfDNA) in plasma represents a rapidly advancing field in medicine. cfDNA consists predominantly of nucleosome-protected DNA shed into the bloodstream by cells undergoing apoptosis. We performed whole-genome sequencing (WGS) of plasma DNA and identified two discrete regions at transcription start sites (TSS) where the nucleosome occupancy results in different read-depth coverage patterns in expressed and silent genes. By employing machine learning for gene classification, we found that the plasma DNA read depth patterns from healthy donors reflected the expression signature of hematopoietic cells. In cancer patients with metastatic disease, we were able to classify expressed cancer driver genes in regions with somatic copy number gains with high accuracy. We could even determine the expressed isoform of genes with several TSSs as confirmed by RNA-Seq of the matching primary tumor. Our analyses provide functional information about the cells releasing their DNA into the circulation.

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