Analysis of missense variants in the human genome reveals widespread gene-specific clustering and improves prediction of pathogenicity

Am J Hum Genet. 2022 Mar 3;109(3):457-470. doi: 10.1016/j.ajhg.2022.01.006. Epub 2022 Feb 3.


We used a machine learning approach to analyze the within-gene distribution of missense variants observed in hereditary conditions and cancer. When applied to 840 genes from the ClinVar database, this approach detected a significant non-random distribution of pathogenic and benign variants in 387 (46%) and 172 (20%) genes, respectively, revealing that variant clustering is widespread across the human exome. This clustering likely occurs as a consequence of mechanisms shaping pathogenicity at the protein level, as illustrated by the overlap of some clusters with known functional domains. We then took advantage of these findings to develop a pathogenicity predictor, MutScore, that integrates qualitative features of DNA substitutions with the new additional information derived from this positional clustering. Using a random forest approach, MutScore was able to identify pathogenic missense mutations with very high accuracy, outperforming existing predictive tools, especially for variants associated with autosomal-dominant disease and cancer. Thus, the within-gene clustering of pathogenic and benign DNA changes is an important and previously underappreciated feature of the human exome, which can be harnessed to improve the prediction of pathogenicity and disambiguation of DNA variants of uncertain significance.

Keywords: functional domains; gain-of-function; human genome; loss-of-function; medical genetics; missense; molecular pathology; mutation; pathogenicity prediction; variant clustering.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Cluster Analysis
  • Exome / genetics
  • Genome, Human* / genetics
  • Humans
  • Mutation, Missense* / genetics
  • Virulence