There is considerable evidence that human genetic variation influences gene expression. Genome-wide studies have revealed that mRNA levels are associated with genetic variation in or close to the gene coding for those mRNA transcripts – cis effects, and elsewhere in the genome – trans effects. The role of genetic variation in determining protein levels has not been systematically assessed. Using a genome-wide association approach we show that common genetic variation influences levels of clinically relevant proteins in human serum and plasma. We evaluated the role of 496,032 polymorphisms on levels of 42 proteins measured in 1200 fasting individuals from the population based InCHIANTI study. Proteins included insulin, several interleukins, adipokines, chemokines, and liver function markers that are implicated in many common diseases including metabolic, inflammatory, and infectious conditions. We identified eight Cis effects, including variants in or near the IL6R (p = 1.8×10−57), CCL4L1 (p = 3.9×10−21), IL18 (p = 6.8×10−13), LPA (p = 4.4×10−10), GGT1 (p = 1.5×10−7), SHBG (p = 3.1×10−7), CRP (p = 6.4×10−6) and IL1RN (p = 7.3×10−6) genes, all associated with their respective protein products with effect sizes ranging from 0.19 to 0.69 standard deviations per allele. Mechanisms implicated include altered rates of cleavage of bound to unbound soluble receptor (IL6R), altered secretion rates of different sized proteins (LPA), variation in gene copy number (CCL4L1) and altered transcription (GGT1). We identified one novel trans effect that was an association between ABO blood group and tumour necrosis factor alpha (TNF-alpha) levels (p = 6.8×10−40), but this finding was not present when TNF-alpha was measured using a different assay , or in a second study, suggesting an assay-specific association. Our results show that protein levels share some of the features of the genetics of gene expression. These include the presence of strong genetic effects in cis locations. The identification of protein quantitative trait loci (pQTLs) may be a powerful complementary method of improving our understanding of disease pathways.
One of the central dogmas of molecular genetics is that DNA is transcribed to RNA which is translated to protein and alterations to proteins can influence human diseases. Genome-wide association studies have recently revealed many new DNA variants that influence human diseases. To complement these efforts, several genome-wide studies have established that DNA variation influences mRNA expression levels. Loci influencing mRNA levels have been termed “eQTLs”. In this study we have performed the first genome-wide association study of the third piece in this jigsaw – the role of DNA variation in relation to protein levels, or “pQTLs”. We analysed 42 proteins measured in blood fractions from the InCHIANTI study. We identified eight cis effects including common variants in or near the IL6R, CCL4, IL18, LPA, GGT1, SHBG, CRP and IL1RN genes, all associated with blood levels of their respective protein products. Mechanisms implicated included altered transcription (GGT1) but also rates of cleavage of bound to unbound soluble receptor (IL6R), altered secretion rates of different sized proteins (LPA) and variation in gene copy number (CCL4). Blood levels of many of these proteins are correlated with human diseases and the identification of “pQTLs” may in turn help our understanding of disease.