Genome-wide messenger RNA expression levels are highly heritable. However, the molecular mechanisms underlying this heritability are poorly understood.The influence of trans-acting polymorphisms is often mediated by changes in the regulatory activity of one or more sequence-specific transcription factors (TFs). We use a method that exploits prior information about the DNA-binding specificity of each TF to estimate its genotype-specific regulatory activity. To this end, we perform linear regression of genotype-specific differential mRNA expression on TF-specific promoter-binding affinity.Treating inferred TF activity as a quantitative trait and mapping it across a panel of segregants from an experimental genetic cross allows us to identify trans-acting loci (‘aQTLs') whose allelic variation modulates the TF. A few of these aQTL regions contain the gene encoding the TF itself; several others contain a gene whose protein product is known to interact with the TF.Our method is strictly causal, as it only uses sequence-based features as predictors. Application to budding yeast demonstrates a dramatic increase in statistical power, compared with existing methods, to detect locus-TF associations and trans-acting loci. Our aQTL mapping strategy also succeeds in mouse.
Genetic sequence variation naturally perturbs mRNA expression levels in the cell. In recent years, analysis of parallel genotyping and expression profiling data for segregants from genetic crosses between parental strains has revealed that mRNA expression levels are highly heritable. Expression quantitative trait loci (eQTLs), whose allelic variation regulates the expression level of individual genes, have successfully been identified (Brem et al, 2002; Schadt et al, 2003). The molecular mechanisms underlying the heritability of mRNA expression are poorly understood. However, they are likely to involve mediation by transcription factors (TFs). We present a new transcription-factor-centric method that greatly increases our ability to understand what drives the genetic variation in mRNA expression (Figure 1). Our method identifies genomic loci (‘aQTLs') whose allelic variation modulates the protein-level activity of specific TFs. To map aQTLs, we integrate genotyping and expression profiling data with quantitative prior information about DNA-binding specificity of transcription factors in the form of position-specific affinity matrices (Bussemaker et al, 2007). We applied our method in two different organisms: budding yeast and mouse.
In our approach, the inferred TF activity is explicitly treated as a quantitative trait, and genetically mapped. The decrease of ‘phenotype space' from that of all genes (in the eQTL approach) to that of all TFs (in our aQTL approach) increases the statistical power to detect trans-acting loci in two distinct ways. First, as each inferred TF activity is derived from a large number of genes, it is far less noisy than mRNA levels of individual genes. Second, the number of trait/marker combinations that needs to be tested for statistical significance in parallel is roughly two orders of magnitude smaller than for eQTLs. We identified a total of 103 locus-TF associations, a more than six-fold improvement over the 17 locus-TF associations identified by several existing methods (Brem et al, 2002; Yvert et al, 2003; Lee et al, 2006; Smith and Kruglyak, 2008; Zhu et al, 2008). The total number of distinct genomic loci identified as an aQTL equals 31, which includes 11 of the 13 previously identified eQTL hotspots (Smith and Kruglyak, 2008).
To better understand the mechanisms underlying the identified genetic linkages, we examined the genes within each aQTL region. First, we found four ‘local' aQTLs, which encompass the gene encoding the TF itself. This includes the known polymorphism in the HAP1 gene (Brem et al, 2002), but also novel predictions of trans-acting polymorphisms in RFX1, STB5, and HAP4. Second, using high-throughput protein–protein interaction data, we identified putative causal genes for several aQTLs. For example, we predict that a polymorphism in the cyclin-dependent kinase CDC28 antagonistically modulates the functionally distinct cell cycle regulators Fkh1 and Fkh2. In this and other cases, our approach naturally accounts for post-translational modulation of TF activity at the protein level.
We validated our ability to predict locus-TF associations in yeast using gene expression profiles of allele replacement strains from a previous study (Smith and Kruglyak, 2008). Chromosome 15 contains an aQTL whose allelic status influences the activity of no fewer than 30 distinct TFs. This locus includes IRA2, which controls intracellular cAMP levels. We used the gene expression profile of IRA2 replacement strains to confirm that the polymorphism within IRA2 indeed modulates a subset of the TFs whose activity was predicted to link to this locus, and no other TFs.
Application of our approach to mouse data identified an aQTL modulating the activity of a specific TF in liver cells. We identified an aQTL on mouse chromosome 7 for Zscan4, a transcription factor containing four zinc finger domains and a SCAN domain. Even though we could not detect a candidate causal gene for Zscan4p because of lack of information about the mouse genome, our result demonstrates that our method also works in higher eukaryotes.
In summary, aQTL mapping has a greatly improved sensitivity to detect molecular mechanisms underlying the heritability of gene expression. The successful application of our approach to yeast and mouse data underscores the value of explicitly treating the inferred TF activity as a quantitative trait for increasing statistical power of detecting trans-acting loci. Furthermore, our method is computationally efficient, and easily applicable to any other organism whenever prior information about the DNA-binding specificity of TFs is available.
Analysis of parallel genotyping and expression profiling data has shown that mRNA expression levels are highly heritable. Currently, only a tiny fraction of this genetic variance can be mechanistically accounted for. The influence of trans-acting polymorphisms on gene expression traits is often mediated by transcription factors (TFs). We present a method that exploits prior knowledge about the in vitro DNA-binding specificity of a TF in order to map the loci (‘aQTLs') whose inheritance modulates its protein-level regulatory activity. Genome-wide regression of differential mRNA expression on predicted promoter affinity is used to estimate segregant-specific TF activity, which is subsequently mapped as a quantitative phenotype. In budding yeast, our method identifies six times as many locus-TF associations and more than twice as many trans-acting loci as all existing methods combined. Application to mouse data from an F2 intercross identified an aQTL on chromosome VII modulating the activity of Zscan4 in liver cells. Our method has greatly improved statistical power over existing methods, is mechanism based, strictly causal, computationally efficient, and generally applicable.