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Leveraging phenotypic variability to identify genetic interactions in human phenotypes

By Andrew Marderstein, Emily Davenport, Scott Kulm, Cristopher Van Hout, Olivier Elemento, Andrew G. Clark

Posted 28 Jul 2020
bioRxiv DOI: 10.1101/2020.07.28.225730

While thousands of loci have been associated with human phenotypes, the role of gene-environment (GxE) interactions in determining individual risk of human diseases remains unclear. This is partly due to the severe erosion of statistical power resulting from the massive number of statistical tests required to detect such interactions. Here, we focus on improving the power of GxE tests by developing a statistical framework for assessing quantitative trait loci (QTLs) associated with the trait means and/or trait variances. When applying this framework to body mass index (BMI), we find that GxE discovery and replication rates are significantly higher when prioritizing genetic variants associated with the variance of the phenotype (vQTLs) compared to assessing all genetic variants. Moreover, we find that vQTLs are enriched for associations with other non-BMI phenotypes having strong environmental influences, such as diabetes or ulcerative colitis. We show that GxE effects first identified in quantitative traits such as BMI can be used for GxE discovery in disease phenotypes such as diabetes. A clear conclusion is that strong GxE interactions mediate the genetic contribution to body weight and diabetes risk. ### Competing Interest Statement O.E. is scientific advisor and equity holder in Freenome, Owkin, Volastra Therapeutics and One Three Biotech. C.V.V.H. is an employee of the Regeneron Genetics Center.

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