Background: Genome-wide association studies have identified thousands of SNP variants associated with hundreds of phenotypes. For most associations the causal variants and the molecular mechanisms underlying pathogenesis remain unknown. Exploration of the underlying functional annotations of trait-associated loci has thrown some light on their potential roles in pathogenesis. However, there are some shortcomings of the methods used to date, which may undermine efforts to prioritize variants for further analyses. Here, we introduce and apply novel methods to rigorously identify annotation classes showing enrichment or depletion of trait-associated variants taking into account the underlying associations due to co-location of different functional annotations and linkage disequilibrium.
Results: We assessed enrichment and depletion of variants in publicly available annotation classes such as genic regions, regulatory features, measures of conservation, and patterns of histone modifications. We used logistic regression to build a multivariate model that identified the most influential functional annotations for trait-association status of genome-wide significant variants. SNPs associated with all of the enriched annotations were 8 times more likely to be trait-associated variants than SNPs annotated with none of them. Annotations associated with chromatin state together with prior knowledge of the existence of a local expression QTL (eQTL) were the most important factors in the final logistic regression model. Surprisingly, despite the widespread use of evolutionary conservation to prioritize variants for study we find only modest enrichment of trait-associated SNPs in conserved regions.
Conclusion: We established odds ratios of functional annotations that are more likely to contain significantly trait-associated SNPs, for the purpose of prioritizing GWAS hits for further studies. Additionally, we estimated the relative and combined influence of the different genomic annotations, which may facilitate future prioritization methods by adding substantial information.