Chromatin accessibility and gene expression during adipocyte differentiation identify context-dependent effects at cardiometabolic GWAS loci

PLoS Genet. 2021 Oct 26;17(10):e1009865. doi: 10.1371/journal.pgen.1009865. eCollection 2021 Oct.


Chromatin accessibility and gene expression in relevant cell contexts can guide identification of regulatory elements and mechanisms at genome-wide association study (GWAS) loci. To identify regulatory elements that display differential activity across adipocyte differentiation, we performed ATAC-seq and RNA-seq in a human cell model of preadipocytes and adipocytes at days 4 and 14 of differentiation. For comparison, we created a consensus map of ATAC-seq peaks in 11 human subcutaneous adipose tissue samples. We identified 58,387 context-dependent chromatin accessibility peaks and 3,090 context-dependent genes between all timepoint comparisons (log2 fold change>1, FDR<5%) with 15,919 adipocyte- and 18,244 preadipocyte-dependent peaks. Adipocyte-dependent peaks showed increased overlap (60.1%) with Roadmap Epigenomics adipocyte nuclei enhancers compared to preadipocyte-dependent peaks (11.5%). We linked context-dependent peaks to genes based on adipocyte promoter capture Hi-C data, overlap with adipose eQTL variants, and context-dependent gene expression. Of 16,167 context-dependent peaks linked to a gene, 5,145 were linked by two or more strategies to 1,670 genes. Among GWAS loci for cardiometabolic traits, adipocyte-dependent peaks, but not preadipocyte-dependent peaks, showed significant enrichment (LD score regression P<0.005) for waist-to-hip ratio and modest enrichment (P < 0.05) for HDL-cholesterol. We identified 659 peaks linked to 503 genes by two or more approaches and overlapping a GWAS signal, suggesting a regulatory mechanism at these loci. To identify variants that may alter chromatin accessibility between timepoints, we identified 582 variants in 454 context-dependent peaks that demonstrated allelic imbalance in accessibility (FDR<5%), of which 55 peaks also overlapped GWAS variants. At one GWAS locus for palmitoleic acid, rs603424 was located in an adipocyte-dependent peak linked to SCD and exhibited allelic differences in transcriptional activity in adipocytes (P = 0.003) but not preadipocytes (P = 0.09). These results demonstrate that context-dependent peaks and genes can guide discovery of regulatory variants at GWAS loci and aid identification of regulatory mechanisms.

Publication types

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