Background: The immune system plays a fundamental role in development during pregnancy and early life. Alterations in circulating maternal and neonatal immune mediators have been associated with pregnancy complications as well as susceptibility to autoimmune and neurodevelopmental conditions in later life. Evidence suggests that the immune system in adults not only responds to environmental stimulation but is also under strong genetic control.
Methods: This is the first genetic study of > 700 mother-infant pairs to analyse the circulating levels of 22 maternal mid-gestational serum-derived and 42 neonatal bloodspot-derived immune mediators (cytokines/chemokines) in the context of maternal and fetal genotype. We first estimated the maternal and fetal genome-wide SNP-based heritability (h2g) for each immune molecule and then performed genome-wide association studies (GWAS) to identify specific loci contributing to individual immune mediators. Finally, we assessed the relationship between genetic immune determinants and ASD outcome.
Results: We show maternal and neonatal cytokines/chemokines displaying genetic regulation using independent methodologies. We demonstrate that novel fetal loci for immune function independently affect the physiological levels of maternal immune mediators and vice versa. The cross-associated loci are in distinct genomic regions compared with individual-specific immune mediator loci. Finally, we observed an interaction between increased IL-8 levels at birth, autism spectrum disorder (ASD) status, and a specific maternal genotype.
Conclusions: Our results suggest that maternal and fetal genetic variation influences the immune system during pregnancy and at birth via distinct mechanisms and that a better understanding of immune factor determinants in early development may shed light on risk factors for developmental disorders.
Keywords: Autism; Chemokines; Cytokines; Early brain development; GWAS; Immune system; Maternal and fetal genetics; SNP-based heritability.