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1.  Impact of Regulatory Variation from RNA to Protein 
Science (New York, N.Y.)  2014;347(6222):664-667.
The phenotypic consequences of expression quantitative trait loci (eQTLs) are presumably due to their effects on protein expression levels. Yet, the impact of genetic variation, including eQTLs, on protein levels remains poorly understood. To address this, we mapped genetic variants that are associated with eQTLs, ribosome occupancy (rQTLs), or protein abundance (pQTLs). We found that most QTLs are associated with transcript expression levels, with consequent effects on ribosome and protein levels. However, eQTLs tend to have significantly reduced effect sizes on protein levels, suggesting that their potential impact on downstream phenotypes is often attenuated or buffered. Additionally, we identified a class of cis QTLs that affect protein abundance with little or no effect on mRNA or ribosome levels, suggesting that they may arise from differences in post-translational regulation.
PMCID: PMC4507520  PMID: 25657249
2.  Reprogramming LCLs to iPSCs Results in Recovery of Donor-Specific Gene Expression Signature 
PLoS Genetics  2015;11(5):e1005216.
Renewable in vitro cell cultures, such as lymphoblastoid cell lines (LCLs), have facilitated studies that contributed to our understanding of genetic influence on human traits. However, the degree to which cell lines faithfully maintain differences in donor-specific phenotypes is still debated. We have previously reported that standard cell line maintenance practice results in a loss of donor-specific gene expression signatures in LCLs. An alternative to the LCL model is the induced pluripotent stem cell (iPSC) system, which carries the potential to model tissue-specific physiology through the use of differentiation protocols. Still, existing LCL banks represent an important source of starting material for iPSC generation, and it is possible that the disruptions in gene regulation associated with long-term LCL maintenance could persist through the reprogramming process. To address this concern, we studied the effect of reprogramming mature LCL cultures from six unrelated donors to iPSCs on the ensuing gene expression patterns within and between individuals. We show that the reprogramming process results in a recovery of donor-specific gene regulatory signatures, increasing the number of genes with a detectable donor effect by an order of magnitude. The proportion of variation in gene expression statistically attributed to donor increases from 6.9% in LCLs to 24.5% in iPSCs (P < 10-15). Since environmental contributions are unlikely to be a source of individual variation in our system of highly passaged cultured cell lines, our observations suggest that the effect of genotype on gene regulation is more pronounced in iPSCs than in LCLs. Our findings indicate that iPSCs can be a powerful model system for studies of phenotypic variation across individuals in general, and the genetic association with variation in gene regulation in particular. We further conclude that LCLs are an appropriate starting material for iPSC generation.
Author Summary
For those studying the effect of genotype on human traits, a collection of genetically diverse renewable cell lines can be an indispensable resource. B-cells immortalized with Epstein-Barr virus, also known as lymphoblastoid cell lines or LCLs, have been particularly favored as such a model because they are easy to generate from donor blood samples and already exist in large panels representing many ethnic and disease populations. However, long-term maintenance of LCL cultures involves practices that reduce the ability of the model to reproduce donor differences in gene expression, potentially compromising the genotype-phenotype relationship. Induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) are increasingly used to study the physiology of primary tissue, and unlike LCLs, have been found to retain a strong donor effect. Recent advances have made it possible to generate iPSCs from LCLs using reprogramming vectors that do not integrate into the genome. Here, we report that reprogramming highly manipulated LCLs to iPSCs can recover donor gene expression signatures that had been lost during long-term LCL maintenance. Our findings suggest that iPSCs generated from LCL panels are well suited for studies of the genetic basis for individual phenotypic variation.
PMCID: PMC4423863  PMID: 25950834
3.  The Genetic and Mechanistic Basis for Variation in Gene Regulation 
PLoS Genetics  2015;11(1):e1004857.
It is now well established that noncoding regulatory variants play a central role in the genetics of common diseases and in evolution. However, until recently, we have known little about the mechanisms by which most regulatory variants act. For instance, what types of functional elements in DNA, RNA, or proteins are most often affected by regulatory variants? Which stages of gene regulation are typically altered? How can we predict which variants are most likely to impact regulation in a given cell type? Recent studies, in many cases using quantitative trait loci (QTL)-mapping approaches in cell lines or tissue samples, have provided us with considerable insight into the properties of genetic loci that have regulatory roles. Such studies have uncovered novel biochemical regulatory interactions and led to the identification of previously unrecognized regulatory mechanisms. We have learned that genetic variation is often directly associated with variation in regulatory activities (namely, we can map regulatory QTLs, not just expression QTLs [eQTLs]), and we have taken the first steps towards understanding the causal order of regulatory events (for example, the role of pioneer transcription factors). Yet, in most cases, we still do not know how to interpret overlapping combinations of regulatory interactions, and we are still far from being able to predict how variation in regulatory mechanisms is propagated through a chain of interactions to eventually result in changes in gene expression profiles.
PMCID: PMC4287341  PMID: 25569255
4.  Epigenetic modifications are associated with inter-species gene expression variation in primates 
Genome Biology  2014;15(12):547.
Changes in gene regulation have long been thought to play an important role in evolution and speciation, especially in primates. Over the past decade, comparative genomic studies have revealed extensive inter-species differences in gene expression levels, yet we know much less about the extent to which regulatory mechanisms differ between species.
To begin addressing this gap, we perform a comparative epigenetic study in primate lymphoblastoid cell lines, to query the contribution of RNA polymerase II and four histone modifications, H3K4me1, H3K4me3, H3K27ac, and H3K27me3, to inter-species variation in gene expression levels. We find that inter-species differences in mark enrichment near transcription start sites are significantly more often associated with inter-species differences in the corresponding gene expression level than expected by chance alone. Interestingly, we also find that first-order interactions among the five marks, as well as chromatin states, do not markedly contribute to the degree of association between the marks and inter-species variation in gene expression levels, suggesting that the marginal effects of the five marks dominate this contribution.
Our observations suggest that epigenetic modifications are substantially associated with changes in gene expression levels among primates and may represent important molecular mechanisms in primate evolution.
Electronic supplementary material
The online version of this article (doi:10.1186/s13059-014-0547-3) contains supplementary material, which is available to authorized users.
PMCID: PMC4290387  PMID: 25468404
5.  Methylation QTLs Are Associated with Coordinated Changes in Transcription Factor Binding, Histone Modifications, and Gene Expression Levels 
PLoS Genetics  2014;10(9):e1004663.
DNA methylation is an important epigenetic regulator of gene expression. Recent studies have revealed widespread associations between genetic variation and methylation levels. However, the mechanistic links between genetic variation and methylation remain unclear. To begin addressing this gap, we collected methylation data at ∼300,000 loci in lymphoblastoid cell lines (LCLs) from 64 HapMap Yoruba individuals, and genome-wide bisulfite sequence data in ten of these individuals. We identified (at an FDR of 10%) 13,915 cis methylation QTLs (meQTLs)—i.e., CpG sites in which changes in DNA methylation are associated with genetic variation at proximal loci. We found that meQTLs are frequently associated with changes in methylation at multiple CpGs across regions of up to 3 kb. Interestingly, meQTLs are also frequently associated with variation in other properties of gene regulation, including histone modifications, DNase I accessibility, chromatin accessibility, and expression levels of nearby genes. These observations suggest that genetic variants may lead to coordinated molecular changes in all of these regulatory phenotypes. One plausible driver of coordinated changes in different regulatory mechanisms is variation in transcription factor (TF) binding. Indeed, we found that SNPs that change predicted TF binding affinities are significantly enriched for associations with DNA methylation at nearby CpGs.
Author Summary
DNA methylation is an important epigenetic mark that contributes to many biological processes including the regulation of gene expression. Genetic variation has been associated with quantitative changes in DNA methylation (meQTLs). We identified thousands of meQTLs using an assay that allowed us to measure methylation levels at around 300 thousand cytosines. We found that meQTLs are enriched with loci that is also associated with quantitative changes in gene expression, DNase I hypersensitivity, PolII occupancy, and a number of histone marks. This suggests that many molecular events are likely regulated in concert. Finally, we found that changes in transcription factor binding as well as transcription factor abundance are associated with changes in DNA methylation near transcription factor binding sites. This work contributes to our understanding of the regulation of DNA methylation in the larger context of gene regulatory landscape.
PMCID: PMC4169251  PMID: 25233095
6.  The Effect of Freeze-Thaw Cycles on Gene Expression Levels in Lymphoblastoid Cell Lines 
PLoS ONE  2014;9(9):e107166.
Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) transformed lymphoblastoid cell lines (LCLs) are a widely used renewable resource for functional genomic studies in humans. The ability to accumulate multidimensional data pertaining to the same individual cell lines, from complete genomic sequences to detailed gene regulatory profiles, further enhances the utility of LCLs as a model system. However, the extent to which LCLs are a faithful model system is relatively unknown. We have previously shown that gene expression profiles of newly established LCLs maintain a strong individual component. Here, we extend our study to investigate the effect of freeze-thaw cycles on gene expression patterns in mature LCLs, especially in the context of inter-individual variation in gene expression. We report a profound difference in the gene expression profiles of newly established and mature LCLs. Once newly established LCLs undergo a freeze-thaw cycle, the individual specific gene expression signatures become much less pronounced as the gene expression levels in LCLs from different individuals converge to a more uniform profile, which reflects a mature transformed B cell phenotype. We found that previously identified eQTLs are enriched among the relatively few genes whose regulations in mature LCLs maintain marked individual signatures. We thus conclude that while insight drawn from gene regulatory studies in mature LCLs may generally not be affected by the artificial nature of the LCL model system, many aspects of primary B cell biology cannot be observed and studied in mature LCL cultures.
PMCID: PMC4156430  PMID: 25192014
7.  The deleterious mutation load is insensitive to recent population history 
Nature genetics  2014;46(3):220-224.
Human populations have undergone dramatic changes in population size in the past 100,000 years, including recent rapid growth. How these demographic events have affected the burden of deleterious mutations in individuals and the frequencies of disease mutations in populations remains unclear. We use population genetic models to show that recent human demography has likely had little impact on the average burden of deleterious mutations. This prediction is supported by two exome sequence datasets showing that individuals of west African and European ancestry carry very similar burdens of damaging mutations. We further show that for many diseases, rare alleles are unlikely to contribute a large fraction of the heritable variation, and therefore the impact of recent growth is likely to be modest. However, for those diseases that have a direct impact on fitness, strongly deleterious rare mutations likely do play an important role, and recent growth will have increased their impact.
PMCID: PMC3953611  PMID: 24509481
8.  Primate Transcript and Protein Expression Levels Evolve under Compensatory Selection Pressures 
Science (New York, N.Y.)  2013;342(6162):1100-1104.
Changes in gene regulation have likely played an important role in the evolution of primates. Differences in mRNA expression levels across primates have often been documented, however, it is not yet known to what extent measurements of divergence in mRNA levels reflect divergence in protein expression levels, which are probably more important in determining phenotypic differences. We used high-resolution, quantitative mass spectrometry to collect protein expression measurements from human, chimpanzee, and rhesus macaque lymphoblastoid cell lines (LCLs) and compared them to transcript expression data from the same samples. We found dozens of genes with significant expression differences between species at the mRNA level yet little or no difference in protein expression. Overall, our data suggest that protein expression levels evolve under stronger evolutionary constraint than mRNA levels.
PMCID: PMC3994702  PMID: 24136357
9.  Characterizing natural variation using next-generation sequencing technologies 
Trends in genetics : TIG  2009;25(10):463-471.
Progress in evolutionary genomics is tightly coupled with the development of new technologies to collect high-throughput data. The availability of next-generation sequencing technologies has the potential to revolutionize genomic research and enable us to focus on a large number of outstanding questions that previously could not be addressed effectively. Indeed, we are now able to study genetic variation on a genome-wide scale, characterize gene regulatory processes at unprecedented resolution, and soon, we expect that individual labs might be able to rapidly sequence new genomes. However, at present, the analysis of next-generation sequencing data is challenging, in particular because most sequencing platforms provide short reads, which are difficult to align and assemble. In addition, only little is known about sources of variation that are associated with next-generation sequencing study designs. A better understanding of the sources of error and bias in sequencing data is essential, especially in the context of studies of variation at dynamic quantitative traits.
PMCID: PMC3994700  PMID: 19801172
10.  fastSTRUCTURE: Variational Inference of Population Structure in Large SNP Data Sets 
Genetics  2014;197(2):573-589.
Tools for estimating population structure from genetic data are now used in a wide variety of applications in population genetics. However, inferring population structure in large modern data sets imposes severe computational challenges. Here, we develop efficient algorithms for approximate inference of the model underlying the STRUCTURE program using a variational Bayesian framework. Variational methods pose the problem of computing relevant posterior distributions as an optimization problem, allowing us to build on recent advances in optimization theory to develop fast inference tools. In addition, we propose useful heuristic scores to identify the number of populations represented in a data set and a new hierarchical prior to detect weak population structure in the data. We test the variational algorithms on simulated data and illustrate using genotype data from the CEPH–Human Genome Diversity Panel. The variational algorithms are almost two orders of magnitude faster than STRUCTURE and achieve accuracies comparable to those of ADMIXTURE. Furthermore, our results show that the heuristic scores for choosing model complexity provide a reasonable range of values for the number of populations represented in the data, with minimal bias toward detecting structure when it is very weak. Our algorithm, fastSTRUCTURE, is freely available online at
PMCID: PMC4063916  PMID: 24700103
variational inference; population structure
11.  Identification of Genetic Variants That Affect Histone Modifications in Human Cells 
Science (New York, N.Y.)  2013;342(6159):747-749.
Histone modifications are important markers of function and chromatin state, yet the DNA sequence elements that direct them to specific genomic locations are poorly understood. Here, we identify hundreds of quantitative trait loci, genome-wide, that affect histone modification or RNA polymerase II (Pol II) occupancy in Yoruba lymphoblastoid cell lines (LCLs). In many cases, the same variant is associated with quantitative changes in multiple histone marks and Pol II, as well as in deoxyribonuclease I sensitivity and nucleosome positioning. Transcription factor binding site polymorphisms are correlated overall with differences in local histone modification, and we identify specific transcription factors whose binding leads to histone modification in LCLs. Furthermore, variants that affect chromatin at distal regulatory sites frequently also direct changes in chromatin and gene expression at associated promoters.
PMCID: PMC3947669  PMID: 24136359
12.  The Functional Consequences of Variation in Transcription Factor Binding 
PLoS Genetics  2014;10(3):e1004226.
One goal of human genetics is to understand how the information for precise and dynamic gene expression programs is encoded in the genome. The interactions of transcription factors (TFs) with DNA regulatory elements clearly play an important role in determining gene expression outputs, yet the regulatory logic underlying functional transcription factor binding is poorly understood. Many studies have focused on characterizing the genomic locations of TF binding, yet it is unclear to what extent TF binding at any specific locus has functional consequences with respect to gene expression output. To evaluate the context of functional TF binding we knocked down 59 TFs and chromatin modifiers in one HapMap lymphoblastoid cell line. We then identified genes whose expression was affected by the knockdowns. We intersected the gene expression data with transcription factor binding data (based on ChIP-seq and DNase-seq) within 10 kb of the transcription start sites of expressed genes. This combination of data allowed us to infer functional TF binding. Using this approach, we found that only a small subset of genes bound by a factor were differentially expressed following the knockdown of that factor, suggesting that most interactions between TF and chromatin do not result in measurable changes in gene expression levels of putative target genes. We found that functional TF binding is enriched in regulatory elements that harbor a large number of TF binding sites, at sites with predicted higher binding affinity, and at sites that are enriched in genomic regions annotated as “active enhancers.”
Author Summary
An important question in genomics is to understand how a class of proteins called “transcription factors” controls the expression level of other genes in the genome in a cell-type-specific manner – a process that is essential to human development. One major approach to this problem is to study where these transcription factors bind in the genome, but this does not tell us about the effect of that binding on gene expression levels and it is generally accepted that much of the binding does not strongly influence gene expression. To address this issue, we artificially reduced the concentration of 59 different transcription factors in the cell and then examined which genes were impacted by the reduced transcription factor level. Our results implicate some attributes that might influence what binding is functional, but they also suggest that a simple model of functional vs. non-functional binding may not suffice.
PMCID: PMC3945204  PMID: 24603674
13.  The chromatin architectural proteins HMGD1 and H1 bind reciprocally and have opposite effects on chromatin structure and gene regulation 
BMC Genomics  2014;15:92.
Chromatin architectural proteins interact with nucleosomes to modulate chromatin accessibility and higher-order chromatin structure. While these proteins are almost certainly important for gene regulation they have been studied far less than the core histone proteins.
Here we describe the genomic distributions and functional roles of two chromatin architectural proteins: histone H1 and the high mobility group protein HMGD1 in Drosophila S2 cells. Using ChIP-seq, biochemical and gene specific approaches, we find that HMGD1 binds to highly accessible regulatory chromatin and active promoters. In contrast, H1 is primarily associated with heterochromatic regions marked with repressive histone marks. We find that the ratio of HMGD1 to H1 binding is a better predictor of gene activity than either protein by itself, which suggests that reciprocal binding between these proteins is important for gene regulation. Using knockdown experiments, we show that HMGD1 and H1 affect the occupancy of the other protein, change nucleosome repeat length and modulate gene expression.
Collectively, our data suggest that dynamic and mutually exclusive binding of H1 and HMGD1 to nucleosomes and their linker sequences may control the fluid chromatin structure that is required for transcriptional regulation. This study provides a framework to further study the interplay between chromatin architectural proteins and epigenetics in gene regulation.
PMCID: PMC3928079  PMID: 24484546
Chromatin structure; Transcriptional regulation; Histone H1; High mobility group protein; Nucleosome repeat length
14.  Haplotype variation and genotype imputation in African populations 
Genetic epidemiology  2011;35(8):766-780.
Sub-Saharan Africa has been identified as the part of the world with the greatest human genetic diversity. This high level of diversity causes difficulties for genome-wide association (GWA) studies in African populations—for example, by reducing the accuracy of genotype imputation in African populations compared to non-African populations. Here, we investigate haplotype variation and imputation in Africa, using 253 unrelated individuals from 15 Sub-Saharan African populations. We identify the populations that provide the greatest potential for serving as reference panels for imputing genotypes in the remaining groups. Considering reference panels comprising samples of recent African descent in Phase 3 of the HapMap Project, we identify mixtures of reference groups that produce the maximal imputation accuracy in each of the sampled populations. We find that optimal HapMap mixtures and maximal imputation accuracies identified in detailed tests of imputation procedures can instead be predicted by using simple summary statistics that measure relationships between the pattern of genetic variation in a target population and the patterns in potential reference panels. Our results provide an empirical basis for facilitating the selection of reference panels in GWA studies of diverse human populations, especially those of African ancestry. Genet. Epidemiol. 35:766–780, 2011.
PMCID: PMC3568705  PMID: 22125220
haplotype variation; imputation; linkage disequilibrium
15.  Inferring weak population structure with the assistance of sample group information 
Molecular ecology resources  2009;9(5):1322-1332.
Genetic clustering algorithms require a certain amount of data to produce informative results. In the common situation that individuals are sampled at several locations, we show how sample group information can be used to achieve better results when the amount of data is limited. New models are developed for the structure program, both for the cases of admixture and no admixture. These models work by modifying the prior distribution for each individual’s population assignment. The new prior distributions allow the proportion of individuals assigned to a particular cluster to vary by location. The models are tested on simulated data, and illustrated using microsatellite data from the CEPH Human Genome Diversity Panel. We demonstrate that the new models allow structure to be detected at lower levels of divergence, or with less data, than the original structure models or principal components methods, and that they are not biased towards detecting structure when it is not present. These models are implemented in a new version of structure which is freely available online at
PMCID: PMC3518025  PMID: 21564903
admixture; divergence; population structure; prior distribution
16.  The Genetic Architecture of Adaptations to High Altitude in Ethiopia 
PLoS Genetics  2012;8(12):e1003110.
Although hypoxia is a major stress on physiological processes, several human populations have survived for millennia at high altitudes, suggesting that they have adapted to hypoxic conditions. This hypothesis was recently corroborated by studies of Tibetan highlanders, which showed that polymorphisms in candidate genes show signatures of natural selection as well as well-replicated association signals for variation in hemoglobin levels. We extended genomic analysis to two Ethiopian ethnic groups: Amhara and Oromo. For each ethnic group, we sampled low and high altitude residents, thus allowing genetic and phenotypic comparisons across altitudes and across ethnic groups. Genome-wide SNP genotype data were collected in these samples by using Illumina arrays. We find that variants associated with hemoglobin variation among Tibetans or other variants at the same loci do not influence the trait in Ethiopians. However, in the Amhara, SNP rs10803083 is associated with hemoglobin levels at genome-wide levels of significance. No significant genotype association was observed for oxygen saturation levels in either ethnic group. Approaches based on allele frequency divergence did not detect outliers in candidate hypoxia genes, but the most differentiated variants between high- and lowlanders have a clear role in pathogen defense. Interestingly, a significant excess of allele frequency divergence was consistently detected for genes involved in cell cycle control and DNA damage and repair, thus pointing to new pathways for high altitude adaptations. Finally, a comparison of CpG methylation levels between high- and lowlanders found several significant signals at individual genes in the Oromo.
Author Summary
Although hypoxia is a major stress on physiological processes, several human populations have survived for millennia at high altitudes, suggesting that they have adapted to hypoxic conditions. Consistent with this idea, previous studies have identified genetic variants in Tibetan highlanders associated with reduction in hemoglobin levels, an advantageous phenotype at high altitude. To compare the genetic bases of adaptations to high altitude, we collected genetic and epigenetic data in Ethiopians living at high and low altitude, respectively. We find that variants associated with hemoglobin variation among Tibetans or other variants at the same loci do not influence the trait in Ethiopians. However, we find a different variant that is significantly associated with hemoglobin levels in Ethiopians. Approaches based on the difference in allele frequency between high- and lowlanders detected strong signals in genes with a clear role in defense from pathogens, consistent with known differences in pathogens between altitudes. Finally, we found a few genome-wide significant epigenetic differences between altitudes. These results taken together imply that Ethiopian and Tibetan highlanders adapted to the same environmental stress through different variants and genetic loci.
PMCID: PMC3516565  PMID: 23236293
17.  DNaseI sensitivity QTLs are a major determinant of human expression variation 
Nature  2012;482(7385):390-394.
The mapping of expression quantitative trait loci (eQTLs) has emerged as an important tool for linking genetic variation to changes in gene regulation1-5. However, it remains difficult to identify the causal variants underlying eQTLs and little is known about the regulatory mechanisms by which they act. To address this gap, we used DNaseI sequencing to measure chromatin accessibility in 70 Yoruba lymphoblastoid cell lines (LCLs), for which genome-wide genotypes and estimates of gene expression levels are also available6-8. We obtained a total of 2.7 billion uniquely mapped DNase-seq reads, which allowed us to produce genome-wide maps of chromatin accessibility for each individual. We identified 9,595 locations at which DNase-seq read depth correlates significantly with genotype at a nearby SNP or indel (FDR=10%). We call such variants “DNaseI sensitivity Quantitative Trait Loci” (dsQTLs). We found that dsQTLs are strongly enriched within inferred transcription factor binding sites and are frequently associated with allele-specific changes in transcription factor binding. A substantial fraction (16%) of dsQTLs are also associated with variation in the expression levels of nearby genes, (namely, these loci are also classified as eQTLs). Conversely, we estimate that as many as 55% of eQTL SNPs are also dsQTLs. Our observations indicate that dsQTLs are highly abundant in the human genome, and are likely to be important contributors to phenotypic variation.
PMCID: PMC3501342  PMID: 22307276
18.  Controls of Nucleosome Positioning in the Human Genome 
PLoS Genetics  2012;8(11):e1003036.
Nucleosomes are important for gene regulation because their arrangement on the genome can control which proteins bind to DNA. Currently, few human nucleosomes are thought to be consistently positioned across cells; however, this has been difficult to assess due to the limited resolution of existing data. We performed paired-end sequencing of micrococcal nuclease-digested chromatin (MNase–seq) from seven lymphoblastoid cell lines and mapped over 3.6 billion MNase–seq fragments to the human genome to create the highest-resolution map of nucleosome occupancy to date in a human cell type. In contrast to previous results, we find that most nucleosomes have more consistent positioning than expected by chance and a substantial fraction (8.7%) of nucleosomes have moderate to strong positioning. In aggregate, nucleosome sequences have 10 bp periodic patterns in dinucleotide frequency and DNase I sensitivity; and, across cells, nucleosomes frequently have translational offsets that are multiples of 10 bp. We estimate that almost half of the genome contains regularly spaced arrays of nucleosomes, which are enriched in active chromatin domains. Single nucleotide polymorphisms that reduce DNase I sensitivity can disrupt the phasing of nucleosome arrays, which indicates that they often result from positioning against a barrier formed by other proteins. However, nucleosome arrays can also be created by DNA sequence alone. The most striking example is an array of over 400 nucleosomes on chromosome 12 that is created by tandem repetition of sequences with strong positioning properties. In summary, a large fraction of nucleosomes are consistently positioned—in some regions because they adopt favored sequence positions, and in other regions because they are forced into specific arrangements by chromatin remodeling or DNA binding proteins.
Author Summary
Within the nucleus of the cell, the genome of eukaryotic organisms is tightly packaged into chromatin. Chromatin is composed of a repeating series of bead-like nucleosomes, each of which is encircled 1.7 times by a string of DNA. The organization of nucleosomes on the genome is fundamentally important because they can prevent other proteins from accessing the DNA. Previous studies of human nucleosomes concluded that most nucleosomes have fuzzy positioning and tend to occupy different locations in different cells. This interpretation, however, may be a consequence of the low resolution of existing data. Here we revisit the question of nucleosome positioning by generating the most precise map of nucleosome positions that has ever been created for a human cell line. We find that 8.7% of nucleosomes have very consistent positioning, and most nucleosomes are more consistently positioned than expected by chance. Additionally, we estimate that almost half of the genome contains regularly spaced arrays of nucleosomes. Much of this positioning is due to the intrinsic preference of nucleosomes for some DNA sequences over others; but in some regions of the genome, the sequence preferences of nucleosomes are overridden by proteins that out-compete them for binding or displace them using energy from ATP.
PMCID: PMC3499251  PMID: 23166509
19.  Inference of Population Splits and Mixtures from Genome-Wide Allele Frequency Data 
PLoS Genetics  2012;8(11):e1002967.
Many aspects of the historical relationships between populations in a species are reflected in genetic data. Inferring these relationships from genetic data, however, remains a challenging task. In this paper, we present a statistical model for inferring the patterns of population splits and mixtures in multiple populations. In our model, the sampled populations in a species are related to their common ancestor through a graph of ancestral populations. Using genome-wide allele frequency data and a Gaussian approximation to genetic drift, we infer the structure of this graph. We applied this method to a set of 55 human populations and a set of 82 dog breeds and wild canids. In both species, we show that a simple bifurcating tree does not fully describe the data; in contrast, we infer many migration events. While some of the migration events that we find have been detected previously, many have not. For example, in the human data, we infer that Cambodians trace approximately 16% of their ancestry to a population ancestral to other extant East Asian populations. In the dog data, we infer that both the boxer and basenji trace a considerable fraction of their ancestry (9% and 25%, respectively) to wolves subsequent to domestication and that East Asian toy breeds (the Shih Tzu and the Pekingese) result from admixture between modern toy breeds and “ancient” Asian breeds. Software implementing the model described here, called TreeMix, is available at
Author Summary
With modern genotyping technology, it is now possible to obtain large amounts of genetic data from many populations in a species. An important question that can be addressed with these data is: what is the history of these populations? There is a long history in population genetics of inferring the relationships among populations as a bifurcating tree, analogous to phylogenetic trees for representing the evolution of species. However, it has long been recognized that, since populations from the same species exchange genes, simple bifurcating trees may be an incorrect representation of population histories. We have developed a method to address this issue, using a model which allows for both population splits and gene flow. In application to humans, we show that we are able to identify a number of both previously known and unknown episodes of gene flow in history, including gene flow into Cambodia of a population only distantly related to modern East Asia. In application to dogs, we show that the boxer and basenji breeds have a considerable component of ancestry from grey wolves subsequent to domestication.
PMCID: PMC3499260  PMID: 23166502
20.  The Contribution of RNA Decay Quantitative Trait Loci to Inter-Individual Variation in Steady-State Gene Expression Levels 
PLoS Genetics  2012;8(10):e1003000.
Recent gene expression QTL (eQTL) mapping studies have provided considerable insight into the genetic basis for inter-individual regulatory variation. However, a limitation of all eQTL studies to date, which have used measurements of steady-state gene expression levels, is the inability to directly distinguish between variation in transcription and decay rates. To address this gap, we performed a genome-wide study of variation in gene-specific mRNA decay rates across individuals. Using a time-course study design, we estimated mRNA decay rates for over 16,000 genes in 70 Yoruban HapMap lymphoblastoid cell lines (LCLs), for which extensive genotyping data are available. Considering mRNA decay rates across genes, we found that: (i) as expected, highly expressed genes are generally associated with lower mRNA decay rates, (ii) genes with rapid mRNA decay rates are enriched with putative binding sites for miRNA and RNA binding proteins, and (iii) genes with similar functional roles tend to exhibit correlated rates of mRNA decay. Focusing on variation in mRNA decay across individuals, we estimate that steady-state expression levels are significantly correlated with variation in decay rates in 10% of genes. Somewhat counter-intuitively, for about half of these genes, higher expression is associated with faster decay rates, possibly due to a coupling of mRNA decay with transcriptional processes in genes involved in rapid cellular responses. Finally, we used these data to map genetic variation that is specifically associated with variation in mRNA decay rates across individuals. We found 195 such loci, which we named RNA decay quantitative trait loci (“rdQTLs”). All the observed rdQTLs are located near the regulated genes and therefore are assumed to act in cis. By analyzing our data within the context of known steady-state eQTLs, we estimate that a substantial fraction of eQTLs are associated with inter-individual variation in mRNA decay rates.
Author Summary
Recent studies of functional genetic variation in humans have identified numerous loci that are associated with variation in gene expression levels, called expression quantitative trait loci (eQTLs). The mechanisms by which these loci affect gene expression, however, are still largely unknown. Specifically, since most studies rely on measures of steady-state gene expression levels, they are unable to distinguish between the relative influences of either transcriptional- or decay-related processes. To address this gap, we examined the specific impact of mRNA decay processes on steady-state gene expression levels for over 16,000 genes in human lymphoblastoid cell lines. By characterizing decay rates in 70 individuals, we show that steady-state expression levels are significantly influenced by variation in decay rates for 10% of genes. Yet, for roughly half of these genes, we find that individuals with higher expression levels also have faster decay rates. This pattern points to a non-simple mechanistic interplay between transcriptional and decay processes, especially for genes involved in rapid cellular responses. Finally, we identify 195 genetic variants that are significantly associated with both gene expression variation and variation in mRNA decay rates. Using these data, we estimate that that a substantial fraction of eQTLs are associated with inter-individual variation in mRNA decay rates.
PMCID: PMC3469421  PMID: 23071454
21.  A systematic survey of loss-of-function variants in human protein-coding genes 
Science (New York, N.Y.)  2012;335(6070):823-828.
Genome sequencing studies indicate that all humans carry many genetic variants predicted to cause loss of function (LoF) of protein-coding genes, suggesting unexpected redundancy in the human genome. Here we apply stringent filters to 2,951 putative LoF variants obtained from 185 human genomes to determine their true prevalence and properties. We estimate that human genomes typically contain ~100 genuine LoF variants with ~20 genes completely inactivated. We identify rare and likely deleterious LoF alleles, including 26 known and 21 predicted severe disease-causing variants, as well as common LoF variants in non-essential genes. We describe functional and evolutionary differences between LoF-tolerant and recessive disease genes, and a method for using these differences to prioritize candidate genes found in clinical sequencing studies.
PMCID: PMC3299548  PMID: 22344438
23.  Exon-Specific QTLs Skew the Inferred Distribution of Expression QTLs Detected Using Gene Expression Array Data 
PLoS ONE  2012;7(2):e30629.
Mapping of expression quantitative trait loci (eQTLs) is an important technique for studying how genetic variation affects gene regulation in natural populations. In a previous study using Illumina expression data from human lymphoblastoid cell lines, we reported that cis-eQTLs are especially enriched around transcription start sites (TSSs) and immediately upstream of transcription end sites (TESs). In this paper, we revisit the distribution of eQTLs using additional data from Affymetrix exon arrays and from RNA sequencing. We confirm that most eQTLs lie close to the target genes; that transcribed regions are generally enriched for eQTLs; that eQTLs are more abundant in exons than introns; and that the peak density of eQTLs occurs at the TSS. However, we find that the intriguing TES peak is greatly reduced or absent in the Affymetrix and RNA-seq data. Instead our data suggest that the TES peak observed in the Illumina data is mainly due to exon-specific QTLs that affect 3′ untranslated regions, where most of the Illumina probes are positioned. Nonetheless, we do observe an overall enrichment of eQTLs in exons versus introns in all three data sets, consistent with an important role for exonic sequences in gene regulation.
PMCID: PMC3281037  PMID: 22359548
24.  Dissecting the regulatory architecture of gene expression QTLs 
Genome Biology  2012;13(1):R7.
Expression quantitative trait loci (eQTLs) are likely to play an important role in the genetics of complex traits; however, their functional basis remains poorly understood. Using the HapMap lymphoblastoid cell lines, we combine 1000 Genomes genotypes and an extensive catalogue of human functional elements to investigate the biological mechanisms that eQTLs perturb.
We use a Bayesian hierarchical model to estimate the enrichment of eQTLs in a wide variety of regulatory annotations. We find that approximately 40% of eQTLs occur in open chromatin, and that they are particularly enriched in transcription factor binding sites, suggesting that many directly impact protein-DNA interactions. Analysis of core promoter regions shows that eQTLs also frequently disrupt some known core promoter motifs but, surprisingly, are not enriched in other well-known motifs such as the TATA box. We also show that information from regulatory annotations alone, when weighted by the hierarchical model, can provide a meaningful ranking of the SNPs that are most likely to drive gene expression variation.
Our study demonstrates how regulatory annotation and the association signal derived from eQTL-mapping can be combined into a single framework. We used this approach to further our understanding of the biology that drives human gene expression variation, and of the putatively causal SNPs that underlie it.
PMCID: PMC3334587  PMID: 22293038
25.  A Genome Sequence Resource for the Aye-Aye (Daubentonia madagascariensis), a Nocturnal Lemur from Madagascar 
Genome Biology and Evolution  2011;4(2):126-135.
We present a high-coverage draft genome assembly of the aye-aye (Daubentonia madagascariensis), a highly unusual nocturnal primate from Madagascar. Our assembly totals ∼3.0 billion bp (3.0 Gb), roughly the size of the human genome, comprised of ∼2.6 million scaffolds (N50 scaffold size = 13,597 bp) based on short paired-end sequencing reads. We compared the aye-aye genome sequence data with four other published primate genomes (human, chimpanzee, orangutan, and rhesus macaque) as well as with the mouse and dog genomes as nonprimate outgroups. Unexpectedly, we observed strong evidence for a relatively slow substitution rate in the aye-aye lineage compared with these and other primates. In fact, the aye-aye branch length is estimated to be ∼10% shorter than that of the human lineage, which is known for its low substitution rate. This finding may be explained, in part, by the protracted aye-aye life-history pattern, including late weaning and age of first reproduction relative to other lemurs. Additionally, the availability of this draft lemur genome sequence allowed us to polarize nucleotide and protein sequence changes to the ancestral primate lineage—a critical period in primate evolution, for which the relevant fossil record is sparse. Finally, we identified 293,800 high-confidence single nucleotide polymorphisms in the donor individual for our aye-aye genome sequence, a captive-born individual from two wild-born parents. The resulting heterozygosity estimate of 0.051% is the lowest of any primate studied to date, which is understandable considering the aye-aye's extensive home-range size and relatively low population densities. Yet this level of genetic diversity also suggests that conservation efforts benefiting this unusual species should be prioritized, especially in the face of the accelerating degradation and fragmentation of Madagascar's forests.
PMCID: PMC3273163  PMID: 22155688
genome assembly; molecular clock; primate evolution; lemur

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