Recent genome-wide association studies (GWAS) with metabolomics data linked genetic variation in the human genome to differences in individual metabolite levels. A strong relevance of this metabolic individuality for biomedical and pharmaceutical research has been reported. However, a considerable amount of the molecules currently quantified by modern metabolomics techniques are chemically unidentified. The identification of these “unknown metabolites” is still a demanding and intricate task, limiting their usability as functional markers of metabolic processes. As a consequence, previous GWAS largely ignored unknown metabolites as metabolic traits for the analysis. Here we present a systems-level approach that combines genome-wide association analysis and Gaussian graphical modeling with metabolomics to predict the identity of the unknown metabolites. We apply our method to original data of 517 metabolic traits, of which 225 are unknowns, and genotyping information on 655,658 genetic variants, measured in 1,768 human blood samples. We report previously undescribed genotype–metabotype associations for six distinct gene loci (SLC22A2, COMT, CYP3A5, CYP2C18, GBA3, UGT3A1) and one locus not related to any known gene (rs12413935). Overlaying the inferred genetic associations, metabolic networks, and knowledge-based pathway information, we derive testable hypotheses on the biochemical identities of 106 unknown metabolites. As a proof of principle, we experimentally confirm nine concrete predictions. We demonstrate the benefit of our method for the functional interpretation of previous metabolomics biomarker studies on liver detoxification, hypertension, and insulin resistance. Our approach is generic in nature and can be directly transferred to metabolomics data from different experimental platforms.
Genome-wide association studies on metabolomics data have demonstrated that genetic variation in metabolic enzymes and transporters leads to concentration changes in the respective metabolite levels. The conventional goal of these studies is the detection of novel interactions between the genome and the metabolic system, providing valuable insights for both basic research as well as clinical applications. In this study, we borrow the metabolomics GWAS concept for a novel, entirely different purpose. Metabolite measurements frequently produce signals where a certain substance can be reliably detected in the sample, but it has not yet been elucidated which specific metabolite this signal actually represents. The concept is comparable to a fingerprint: each one is uniquely identifiable, but as long as it is not registered in a database one cannot tell to whom this fingerprint belongs. Obviously, this issue tremendously reduces the usability of a metabolomics analyses. The genetic associations of such an “unknown,” however, give us concrete evidence of the metabolic pathway this substance is most probably involved in. Moreover, we complement the approach with a specific measure of correlation between metabolites, providing further evidence of the metabolic processes of the unknown. For a number of cases, this even allows for a concrete identity prediction, which we then experimentally validate in the lab.