Modifier effects between regulatory and protein-coding variation

Genome-wide associations have shown a lot of promise in dissecting the genetics of complex traits in humans with single variants, yet a large fraction of the genetic effects is still unaccounted for. Analyzing genetic interactions between variants (epistasis) is one of the potential ways forward. We investigated the abundance and functional impact of a specific type of epistasis, namely the interaction between regulatory and protein-coding variants. Using genotype and gene expression data from the 210 unrelated individuals of the original four HapMap populations, we have explored the combined effects of regulatory and protein-coding single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs). We predict that about 18% (1,502 out of 8,233 nsSNPs) of protein-coding variants are differentially expressed among individuals and demonstrate that regulatory variants can modify the functional effect of a coding variant in cis. Furthermore, we show that such interactions in cis can affect the expression of downstream targets of the gene containing the protein-coding SNP. In this way, a cis interaction between regulatory and protein-coding variants has a trans impact on gene expression. Given the abundance of both types of variants in human populations, we propose that joint consideration of regulatory and protein-coding variants may reveal additional genetic effects underlying complex traits and disease and may shed light on causes of differential penetrance of known disease variants.