Trans-eQTLs identified in whole blood have limited influence on complex disease biology.
Yap CX., Lloyd-Jones L., Holloway A., Smartt P., Wray NR., Gratten J., Powell JE.
Trans-eQTLs have been implicated in complex traits and common diseases, but many were initially identified on the basis of having an effect in cis, and there has been no assessment of the significance of the overlap in relation to chance expectations. Here, we investigated whether trans-expression quantitative trait loci (eQTL) associations identified in whole blood contribute to variance in complex traits by determining (1) whether genome-wide significant (GWS) single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) were enriched for trans-eQTL (including trans-only eQTL), and (2) whether the genomic regions surrounding associated trans-genes were enriched for statistical associations in the relevant GWAS. On average for a given phenotype, we identify 4.8% of GWS SNPs overlapping with trans-eQTL present in blood, and show that for the majority of these phenotypes, this observation does not exceed that expected by chance. Likewise, we observe no enrichment for genetic associations with the GWAS phenotype in the regions surrounding the linked trans-genes, with the exception of rheumatoid arthritis. Interestingly, the GWS SNPs for each phenotype were consistently more enriched for unique trans-eQTL SNPs than trans-eQTL SNP-probe pairs (p = 4 × 10-7), with schizophrenia the only exception. This relative enrichment for trans-eQTL SNPs over trans-eQTL SNP-probe pairs implies that trait-associated trans-eQTL SNPs in whole blood are less likely to be 'master regulators' than random trans-eQTL SNPs. Taken together, these results suggest little evidence for the role of blood-based trans-eQTL in complex traits and disease, although this may reflect the finite size of currently available data sets and our findings may not hold for trans-eQTLs in more trait-relevant tissues. All software is publically available at https://github.com/IMB-Computational-Genomics-Lab/eqtlOverlapper .