Deep characterization of a common D4Z4 variant identifies biallelic DUX4 expression as a modifier for disease penetrance in FSHD2

Eur J Hum Genet. 2018 Jan;26(1):94-106. doi: 10.1038/s41431-017-0015-0. Epub 2017 Nov 21.


Facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy is caused by incomplete repression of the transcription factor DUX4 in skeletal muscle as a consequence of D4Z4 macrosatellite repeat contraction in chromosome 4q35 (FSHD1) or variants in genes encoding D4Z4 chromatin repressors (FSHD2). A clinical hallmark of FSHD is variability in onset and progression suggesting the presence of disease modifiers. A well-known cis modifier is the polymorphic DUX4 polyadenylation signal (PAS) that defines FSHD permissive alleles: D4Z4 chromatin relaxation on non-permissive alleles which lack the DUX4-PAS cannot cause disease in the absence of stable DUX4 mRNA. We have explored the nature and relevance of a common variant of the major FSHD haplotype 4A161, which is defined by 1.6 kb size difference of the most distal D4Z4 repeat unit. While the short variant (4A161S) has been extensively studied, we demonstrate that the long variant (4A161L) is relatively common in the European population, is capable of expressing DUX4, but that DUX4 mRNA processing differs from 4A161S. While we do not find evidence for a difference in disease severity between FSHD carriers of an 4A161S or 4A161L allele, our study does uncover biallelic DUX4 expression in FSHD2 patients. Compared to control individuals, we observed an increased frequency of FSHD2 patients homozygous for disease permissive alleles, and who are thus capable of biallelic DUX4 expression, while SMCHD1 variant carriers with only one permissive allele were significantly more often asymptomatic. This suggests that biallelic DUX4 expression lowers the threshold for disease presentation and is a modifier for disease severity in FSHD2.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Cells, Cultured
  • Female
  • Genes, Modifier*
  • Homeodomain Proteins / genetics*
  • Homeodomain Proteins / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Muscle Fibers, Skeletal / metabolism
  • Muscular Dystrophy, Facioscapulohumeral / genetics*
  • Muscular Dystrophy, Facioscapulohumeral / pathology
  • Mutation, Missense
  • Penetrance*


  • DUX4L1 protein, human
  • Homeodomain Proteins