Leveraging auxiliary data from arbitrary distributions to boost GWAS discovery with Flexible cFDR

PLoS Genet. 2021 Oct 20;17(10):e1009853. doi: 10.1371/journal.pgen.1009853. eCollection 2021 Oct.


Genome-wide association studies (GWAS) have identified thousands of genetic variants that are associated with complex traits. However, a stringent significance threshold is required to identify robust genetic associations. Leveraging relevant auxiliary covariates has the potential to boost statistical power to exceed the significance threshold. Particularly, abundant pleiotropy and the non-random distribution of SNPs across various functional categories suggests that leveraging GWAS test statistics from related traits and/or functional genomic data may boost GWAS discovery. While type 1 error rate control has become standard in GWAS, control of the false discovery rate can be a more powerful approach. The conditional false discovery rate (cFDR) extends the standard FDR framework by conditioning on auxiliary data to call significant associations, but current implementations are restricted to auxiliary data satisfying specific parametric distributions, typically GWAS p-values for related traits. We relax these distributional assumptions, enabling an extension of the cFDR framework that supports auxiliary covariates from arbitrary continuous distributions ("Flexible cFDR"). Our method can be applied iteratively, thereby supporting multi-dimensional covariate data. Through simulations we show that Flexible cFDR increases sensitivity whilst controlling FDR after one or several iterations. We further demonstrate its practical potential through application to an asthma GWAS, leveraging various functional genomic data to find additional genetic associations for asthma, which we validate in the larger, independent, UK Biobank data resource.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Asthma / genetics*
  • Genetic Pleiotropy / genetics
  • Genetic Predisposition to Disease / genetics*
  • Genome-Wide Association Study / methods
  • Humans
  • Multifactorial Inheritance / genetics
  • Phenotype
  • Polymorphism, Single Nucleotide / genetics*