Not just differential gene expression but also differential gene regulation in immune cells account for individual differences in the immune response. Authors show here by single-cell RNA-sequencing of peripheral blood mononuclear cells from a large cohort of genetically diverse individuals that gene expression and regulatory changes in these cells depend on the context of and interactions between cell types, genetics, type of pathogen and time after exposure.
The host's gene expression and gene regulatory response to pathogen exposure can be influenced by a combination of the host's genetic background, the type of and exposure time to pathogens. Here we provide a detailed dissection of this using single-cell RNA-sequencing of 1.3M peripheral blood mononuclear cells from 120 individuals, longitudinally exposed to three different pathogens. These analyses indicate that cell-type-specificity is a more prominent factor than pathogen-specificity regarding contexts that affect how genetics influences gene expression (i.e., eQTL) and co-expression (i.e., co-expression QTL). In monocytes, the strongest responder to pathogen stimulations, 71.4% of the genetic variants whose effect on gene expression is influenced by pathogen exposure (i.e., response QTL) also affect the co-expression between genes. This indicates widespread, context-specific changes in gene expression level and its regulation that are driven by genetics. Pathway analysis on the CLEC12A gene that exemplifies cell-type-, exposure-time- and genetic-background-dependent co-expression interactions, shows enrichment of the interferon (IFN) pathway specifically at 3-h post-exposure in monocytes. Similar genetic background-dependent association between IFN activity and CLEC12A co-expression patterns is confirmed in systemic lupus erythematosus by in silico analysis, which implies that CLEC12A might be an IFN-regulated gene. Altogether, this study highlights the importance of context for gaining a better understanding of the mechanisms of gene regulation in health and disease.