BACKGROUND: Expression quantitative trait loci (eQTL) studies are used to interpret the function of disease-associated genetic risk factors. To date, most eQTL analyses have been conducted in bulk tissues, such as whole blood and tissue biopsies, which are likely to mask the cell type-context of the eQTL regulatory effects. Although this context can be investigated by generating transcriptional profiles from purified cell subpopulations, current methods to do this are labor-intensive and expensive. We introduce a new method, Decon2, as a framework for estimating cell proportions using expression profiles from bulk blood samples (Decon-cell) followed by deconvolution of cell type eQTLs (Decon-eQTL).
RESULTS: The estimated cell proportions from Decon-cell agree with experimental measurements across cohorts (R ≥ 0.77). Using Decon-cell, we could predict the proportions of 34 circulating cell types for 3194 samples from a population-based cohort. Next, we identified 16,362 whole-blood eQTLs and deconvoluted cell type interaction (CTi) eQTLs using the predicted cell proportions from Decon-cell. CTi eQTLs show excellent allelic directional concordance with eQTL (≥ 96-100%) and chromatin mark QTL (≥87-92%) studies that used either purified cell subpopulations or single-cell RNA-seq, outperforming the conventional interaction effect.
CONCLUSIONS: Decon2 provides a method to detect cell type interaction effects from bulk blood eQTLs that is useful for pinpointing the most relevant cell type for a given complex disease. Decon2 is available as an R package and Java application (https://github.com/molgenis/systemsgenetics/tree/master/Decon2) and as a web tool (www.molgenis.org/deconvolution).