An allele-specific gene expression assay to test the functional basis of genetic associations.
Paracchini S., Monaco AP., Knight JC.
The number of significant genetic associations with common complex traits is constantly increasing. However, most of these associations have not been understood at molecular level. One of the mechanisms mediating the effect of DNA variants on phenotypes is gene expression, which has been shown to be particularly relevant for complex traits. This method tests in a cellular context the effect of specific DNA sequences on gene expression. The principle is to measure the relative abundance of transcripts arising from the two alleles of a gene, analysing cells which carry one copy of the DNA sequences associated with disease (the risk variants). Therefore, the cells used for this method should meet two fundamental genotypic requirements: they have to be heterozygous both for DNA risk variants and for DNA markers, typically coding polymorphisms, which can distinguish transcripts based on their chromosomal origin. DNA risk variants and DNA markers do not need to have the same allele frequency but the phase (haplotypic) relationship of the genetic markers needs to be understood. It is also important to choose cell types which express the gene of interest. This protocol refers specifically to the procedure adopted to extract nucleic acids from fibroblasts but the method is equally applicable to other cells types including primary cells. DNA and RNA are extracted from the selected cell lines and cDNA is generated. DNA and cDNA are analysed with a primer extension assay, designed to target the coding DNA markers. The primer extension assay is carried out using the MassARRAY (Sequenom) platform according to the manufacturer's specifications. Primer extension products are then analysed by matrix-assisted laser desorption/ionization time of-flight mass spectrometry (MALDI-TOF/MS). Because the selected markers are heterozygous they will generate two peaks on the MS profiles. The area of each peak is proportional to the transcript abundance and can be measured with a function of the MassARRAY Typer software to generate an allelic ratio (allele 1: allele 2) calculation. The allelic ratio obtained for cDNA is normalized using that measured from genomic DNA, where the allelic ratio is expected to be 1:1 to correct for technical artifacts. Markers with a normalised allelic ratio significantly different to 1 indicate that the amount of transcript generated from the two chromosomes in the same cell is different, suggesting that the DNA variants associated with the phenotype have an effect on gene expression. Experimental controls should be used to confirm the results.