Allele-specific expression and high-throughput reporter assay reveal functional genetic variants associated with alcohol use disorders

Mol Psychiatry. 2021 Apr;26(4):1142-1151. doi: 10.1038/s41380-019-0508-z. Epub 2019 Sep 2.


Genome-wide association studies (GWAS) of complex traits, such as alcohol use disorders (AUD), usually identify variants in non-coding regions and cannot by themselves distinguish whether the associated variants are functional or in linkage disequilibrium with the functional variants. Transcriptome studies can identify genes whose expression differs between alcoholics and controls. To test which variants associated with AUD may cause expression differences, we integrated data from deep RNA-seq and GWAS of four postmortem brain regions from 30 subjects with AUD and 30 controls to analyze allele-specific expression (ASE). We identified 88 genes with differential ASE in subjects with AUD compared to controls. Next, to test one potential mechanism contributing to the differential ASE, we analyzed single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) in the 3' untranslated regions (3'UTR) of these genes. Of the 88 genes with differential ASE, 61 genes contained 437 SNPs in the 3'UTR with at least one heterozygote among the subjects studied. Using a modified PASSPORT-seq (parallel assessment of polymorphisms in miRNA target-sites by sequencing) assay, we identified 25 SNPs that affected RNA levels in a consistent manner in two neuroblastoma cell lines, SH-SY5Y and SK-N-BE(2). Many of these SNPs are in binding sites of miRNAs and RNA-binding proteins, indicating that these SNPs are likely causal variants of AUD-associated differential ASE. In sum, we demonstrate that a combination of computational and experimental approaches provides a powerful strategy to uncover functionally relevant variants associated with the risk for AUD.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • 3' Untranslated Regions / genetics
  • Alcoholism* / genetics
  • Alleles
  • Genetic Predisposition to Disease / genetics
  • Genome-Wide Association Study*
  • Humans
  • Polymorphism, Single Nucleotide / genetics


  • 3' Untranslated Regions