Whole-genome sequencing studies applied to large populations or biobanks with extensive phenotyping raise new analytic challenges. The need to consider many variants at a locus or group of genes simultaneously and the potential to study many correlated phenotypes with shared genetic architecture provide opportunities for discovery not addressed by the traditional one variant, one phenotype association study. Here, we introduce a Bayesian model comparison approach called MRP (multiple rare variants and phenotypes) for rare-variant association studies that considers correlation, scale, and direction of genetic effects across a group of genetic variants, phenotypes, and studies, requiring only summary statistic data. We apply our method to exome sequencing data (n = 184,698) across 2,019 traits from the UK Biobank, aggregating signals in genes. MRP demonstrates an ability to recover signals such as associations between PCSK9 and LDL cholesterol levels. We additionally find MRP effective in conducting meta-analyses in exome data. Non-biomarker findings include associations between MC1R and red hair color and skin color, IL17RA and monocyte count, and IQGAP2 and mean platelet volume. Finally, we apply MRP in a multi-phenotype setting; after clustering the 35 biomarker phenotypes based on genetic correlation estimates, we find that joint analysis of these phenotypes results in substantial power gains for gene-trait associations, such as in TNFRSF13B in one of the clusters containing diabetes- and lipid-related traits. Overall, we show that the MRP model comparison approach improves upon useful features from widely used meta-analysis approaches for rare-variant association analyses and prioritizes protective modifiers of disease risk.
Keywords: GWAS; aggregation techniques; gene-based analysis; rare variants.
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