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What do GWAS signals mean?

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Genome-wide association studies (GWAS) have been highly successful at linking genetic variation in hundreds of genes to an ever-growing number of traits or diseases. The fact that the genes implicated fit with the known biology for many of these traits or disorders strongly suggests (effectively proves, really) that the findings from GWAS are “real” – they reflect some real biological involvement of those genes in those diseases. (For example, GWAS have implicated skeletal genes in height, immune genes in immune disorders, and neurodevelopmental genes in schizophrenia).
But figuring out the nature of that involvement and the underlying biological mechanisms is much more challenging. In particular, it is not at all straightforward to understand how statistical measures derived at the level of populations relate to effects in individuals. Here, I explore some of the diverse mechanisms in individuals that may underlie GWAS signals.
GWAS take an epidemiological approach to identify genetic …