Genetic effects of sequence-conserved enhancer-like elements on human complex traits

Xiang Zhu, Shining Ma, Wing Hung Wong

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background: The vast majority of findings from human genome-wide association studies (GWAS) map to non-coding sequences, complicating their mechanistic interpretations and clinical translations. Non-coding sequences that are evolutionarily conserved and biochemically active could offer clues to the mechanisms underpinning GWAS discoveries. However, genetic effects of such sequences have not been systematically examined across a wide range of human tissues and traits, hampering progress to fully understand regulatory causes of human complex traits. Results: Here we develop a simple yet effective strategy to identify functional elements exhibiting high levels of human-mouse sequence conservation and enhancer-like biochemical activity, which scales well to 313 epigenomic datasets across 106 human tissues and cell types. Combined with 468 GWAS of European (EUR) and East Asian (EAS) ancestries, these elements show tissue-specific enrichments of heritability and causal variants for many traits, which are significantly stronger than enrichments based on enhancers without sequence conservation. These elements also help prioritize candidate genes that are functionally relevant to body mass index (BMI) and schizophrenia but were not reported in previous GWAS with large sample sizes. Conclusions: Our findings provide a comprehensive assessment of how sequence-conserved enhancer-like elements affect complex traits in diverse tissues and demonstrate a generalizable strategy of integrating evolutionary and biochemical data to elucidate human disease genetics.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number1
JournalGenome biology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Dec 2024

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Genetics
  • Cell Biology

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