Genetic variants altering cis-regulation of normal gene expression (cis-eQTLs) have been extensively mapped in human cells and tissues, but the extent by which controlled, environmental perturbation influences cis-eQTLs is unclear. We carried out large-scale induction experiments using primary human bone cells derived from unrelated donors of Swedish origin treated with 18 different stimuli (7 treatments and 2 controls, each assessed at 2 time points). The treatments with the largest impact on the transcriptome, verified on two independent expression arrays, included BMP-2 (t = 2h), dexamethasone (DEX) (t = 24h), and PGE2 (t = 24h). Using these treatments and control, we performed expression profiling for 18,144 RefSeq transcripts on biological replicates of the complete study cohort of 113 individuals (ntotal = 782) and combined it with genome-wide SNP-genotyping data in order to map treatment-specific cis-eQTLs (defined as SNPs located within the gene ±250 kb). We found that 93% of cis-eQTLs at 1% FDR were observed in at least one additional treatment, and in fact, on average, only 1.4% of the cis-eQTLs were considered as treatment-specific at high confidence. The relative invariability of cis-regulation following perturbation was reiterated independently by genome-wide allelic expression tests where only a small proportion of variance could be attributed to treatment. Treatment-specific cis-regulatory effects were, however, 2- to 6-fold more abundant among differently expressed genes upon treatment. We further followed-up and validated the DEX–specific cis-regulation of the MYO6 and TNC loci and found top cis-regulatory variants located 180 kb and 250 kb upstream of the transcription start sites, respectively. Our results suggest that, as opposed to tissue-specificity of cis-eQTLs, the interactions between cellular environment and cis-variants are relatively rare (∼1.5%), but that detection of such specific interactions can be achieved by a combination of functional genomic approaches as described here.
Population variation in normal gene expression has been convincingly shown to be under strong genetic control where the main genetic variants are located within close proximity to the gene itself (so called cis-acting). However, the extent to which controlled, environmental stimuli influences cis-regulation of gene expression is unclear. Here, we combine different functional genomic approaches and examine the role of common genetic variants on induced gene expression in a population panel of primary human cells derived from ∼100 unrelated donors treated under multiple conditions. Using these approaches, we find that the interaction between cellular environment and cis-variants are relatively rare, with only a small proportion of the identified genetic variants being specific to treatment. However, although treatment-specific genetic regulation of gene expression seems to be infrequent, we prove its existence by thorough validation of treatment-specific effects of the glucocorticoid-specific regulation of TNC expression. Taken together, these findings indicate that the regulatory landscape within a cell is very stable but, by combining functional genomic tools gene-environmental interactions of clinical importance, can be detected and possibly used as biomarkers in future pharmacogenomic studies.