Mechanistic interpretation of non-coding variants for discovering transcriptional regulators of drug response

Xiaoman Xie, Casey Hanson, Saurabh Sinha

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background: Identification of functional non-coding variants and their mechanistic interpretation is a major challenge of modern genomics, especially for precision medicine. Transcription factor (TF) binding profiles and epigenomic landscapes in reference samples allow functional annotation of the genome, but do not provide ready answers regarding the effects of non-coding variants on phenotypes. A promising computational approach is to build models that predict TF-DNA binding from sequence, and use such models to score a variant's impact on TF binding strength. Here, we asked if this mechanistic approach to variant interpretation can be combined with information on genotype-phenotype associations to discover transcription factors regulating phenotypic variation among individuals. Results: We developed a statistical approach that integrates phenotype, genotype, gene expression, TF ChIP-seq, and Hi-C chromatin interaction data to answer this question. Using drug sensitivity of lymphoblastoid cell lines as the phenotype of interest, we tested if non-coding variants statistically linked to the phenotype are enriched for strong predicted impact on DNA binding strength of a TF and thus identified TFs regulating individual differences in the phenotype. Our approach relies on a new method for predicting variant impact on TF-DNA binding that uses a combination of biophysical modeling and machine learning. We report statistical and literature-based support for many of the TFs discovered here as regulators of drug response variation. We show that the use of mechanistically driven variant impact predictors can identify TF-drug associations that would otherwise be missed. We examined in depth one reported association-that of the transcription factor ELF1 with the drug doxorubicin- A nd identified several genes that may mediate this regulatory relationship. Conclusion: Our work represents initial steps in utilizing predictions of variant impact on TF binding sites for discovery of regulatory mechanisms underlying phenotypic variation. Future advances on this topic will be greatly beneficial to the reconstruction of phenotype-associated gene regulatory networks.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number62
JournalBMC biology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jul 30 2019

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biotechnology
  • Structural Biology
  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Physiology
  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology
  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences
  • Plant Science
  • Developmental Biology
  • Cell Biology


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