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Largest-Ever Genetic Study of Autism Yields New Insights

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Baby and DNA Strands

Anyone who’s spent time with people affected by autism spectrum disorder (ASD) can tell you that it’s a very complex puzzle. The wide variability seen among individuals with this group of developmental brain disorders, which can disrupt communication, behavior control, and social skills, has also posed a huge challenge for researchers trying to identify underlying genetic and environmental factors. So, it’s no surprise that there’s been considerable interest in the recent findings of the largest-ever genetic study of ASD.

In a landmark study that analyzed the DNA of more than 35,000 people from around the world, the NIH-funded international Autism Sequencing Consortium (ASC) identified variants in 102 genes associated with increased risk of developing ASD, up from 65 identified previously. Of the 102 genes, 60 had not been previously linked to ASD and 53 appeared to be primarily connected to ASD as opposed to other types of intellectual disability or developmental delay. It is expected that this newfound genetic knowledge will serve to improve understanding of the complex biological mechanisms involved in ASD, ultimately paving the way for new approaches to diagnosis and treatment.

The study reported in the journal Cell was led by Joseph Buxbaum, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York; Stephan Sanders, University of California, San Francisco; Kathryn Roeder, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA; and Mark Daly, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, MA and the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, Cambridge, MA. These researchers and their teams faced what might seem like a rather daunting task.

While common genetic variants collectively are known to contribute substantially to ASD, rare variants have been recognized individually as more major contributors to a person’s risk of developing ASD. The challenge was how to find such rare variants—whether inherited or newly arising.

To do so, the researchers needed to analyze a enormous amount of DNA data. Fortunately, they and their ASC colleagues already had assembled a vast trove of data. Over the last decade, the ASC had collected DNA samples with full consent from thousands of people with and without ASD, including unaffected siblings and parents. All were aggregated with other studies, and, at the time of this investigation, they had gathered 35,584 unique samples. Those included more than 21,000 family-based samples and almost 12,000 samples from people diagnosed with ASD.

In search of rare genetic alterations, they sequenced whole exomes, the approximately 1.5 percent of the genome that codes for proteins. Their search produced a list of 102 ASD-associated genes, including 30 that had never been implicated in any developmental brain disorder previously.

But that was just the beginning. Next, the ASC team dug deeper into this list. The researchers knew from previous work that up to half of people with ASD also have an intellectual disability or developmental delay. Many of the associated genes overlap, meaning they play roles in both outcomes. So, in one set of analyses, the team compared the list to the results of another genetic study of people diagnosed with developmental delays, including problems with learning or gross motor skills such as delayed walking.

The detailed comparison allowed them to discern genes that are more associated with features of ASD, as opposed to those that are more specific to these developmental delays. It turns out that 49 of the 102 autism-associated genes were altered more often in people with developmental delay than in those diagnosed with ASD. The other 53 were altered more often in ASD, suggesting that they may be more closely linked to this condition’s unique features.

Further study also showed that people who carried alterations in genes found predominantly in ASD also had better intellectual function. They also were more likely to have learned to walk without a developmental delay.

The 102 new genes fell primarily into one of two categories. Many play a role in the brain’s neural connections. The rest are involved primarily in switching other genes on and off in brain development. Interestingly, they are expressed both in excitatory neurons, which are active in sending signals in the brain, and in inhibitory neurons that squelch such activity. Many of these genes are also commonly expressed in the brain’s cerebral cortex, the outermost part of the brain that is responsible for many complex behaviors.

Overall, these findings underscore that ASD truly does exist on a spectrum. Indeed, there are many molecular paths to this disorder. The ASC researchers continue to collect samples, so we can expect this list of 102 genes will continue to expand in the future.

With these gene discoveries in hand, the researchers will now also turn their attention to unravelling additional details about how these genes function in the brain. The hope is that this growing list of genes will converge on a smaller number of important molecular pathways, pointing the way to new and more precise ways of treating ASD in all its complexity.

Reference:

[1] Large-scale exome sequencing study implicates both developmental and functional changes in the neurobiology of autism. Satterstrom FK, Kosmicki JA, Wang J, Breen MS, De Rubeis S, An JY, Peng M, Collins R, Grove J, Klei L, Stevens C, Reichert J, Mulhern MS, Artomov M, Gerges S, Sheppard B, Xu X, Bhaduri A, Norman U, Brand H, Schwartz G, Nguyen R, Guerrero EE, Dias C; Autism Sequencing Consortium; iPSYCH-Broad Consortium, Betancur C, Cook EH, Gallagher L, Gill M, Sutcliffe JS, Thurm A, Zwick ME, Børglum AD, State MW, Cicek AE, Talkowski ME, Cutler DJ, Devlin B, Sanders SJ, Roeder K, Daly MJ, Buxbaum JD.Cell. 2020 Jan 23. {Epub ahead of print]

Links:

Autism Spectrum Disorder (NIH/National Institute of Mental Health)

Joseph Buxbaum (Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York)

Sanders Lab (University of California, San Francisco)

Kathryn Roeder (Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA)

Mark Daly (Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, Cambridge, MA)

Autism Sequencing Consortium (Emory University, Atlanta)

NIH Support: National Institute Mental Health; National Human Genome Research Institute


NASA Twins Study Reveals Health Effects of Space Flight

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Sending one identical twin into space while the other stays behind on Earth might sound like the plot of a sci-fi thriller. But it’s actually a setup for some truly fascinating scientific research!

As part of NASA’s landmark Twins Study, Scott Kelly became the first U.S. astronaut to spend nearly a year in “weightless” microgravity conditions aboard the International Space Station. Meanwhile, his identical twin, retired astronaut Mark Kelly, remained earthbound. Researchers put both men—who like all identical twins shared the same genetic makeup at birth—through the same battery of biomedical tests to gauge how the human body responds to life in space. The good news for the future of space travel is that the results indicated that health is “mostly sustained” during a prolonged stay in space.

Reporting in the journal Science, the Twins Study team, which included several NIH-funded researchers, detailed many thousands of differences between the Kelly twins at the molecular, cellular, and physiological levels during the 340-day observation period. However, most of Scott’s measures returned to near pre-flight levels within six months of rejoining Mark on Earth.

Over the past nearly 60 years, 559 people have flown in space. While weightless conditions are known to speed various processes associated with aging, few astronauts have remained in space for more than a few months at a time. With up to three year missions to the moon or Mars planned for the future, researchers want to get a better sense of how the human body will hold up under microgravity conditions for longer periods.

To get a more holistic answer, researchers collected a variety of biological samples from the Kelly twins before, during, and after Scott’s spaceflight. All told, more than 300 samples were collected over the course of 27 months.

Multiple labs around the country used state-of-the art tools to examine those samples in essentially every way they could think of doing. Those analyses offer a remarkably detailed view of changes in an astronaut’s biology and health while in space.

With so much data, there were lots of interesting findings to report, including many changes in the expression of Scott’s genes that weren’t observed in his twin. While most of these changes returned to preflight levels within six months of Scott’s return to Earth, about 7 percent of his genes continued to be expressed at different levels. These included some related to DNA repair and the immune system.

Despite those changes in immunity-related gene expression, his immune system appeared to remain fully functional. His body responded to the flu vaccine administered in space just as would be expected back home on Earth.

Scott also had some measurable changes in telomeres—complexes of specialized DNA sequences, RNA, and protein that protect the tips of our chromosomes. These generally shorten a bit each time cells divide. But during the time in space, the telomeres in Scott’s white blood cells measured out at somewhat greater length.

Potentially, this is because some of his stem cells, which are younger and haven’t gone through as many cell divisions, were being released into the blood. Back on Earth, his telomere lengths returned to an average length within six months of his return. Over the course of the study, the earthbound telomeres of his twin brother Mark remained stable.

Researchers also uncovered small but significant changes to Scott’s gut microbiome, the collection of microbes that play important roles in digestion and the immune system. More specifically, there was a shift in the ratio of two major groups of bacteria. Once back on Earth, his microbiome quickly shifted back to its original preflight state.

The data also provided some metabolic evidence suggesting that Scott’s mitochondria, the cellular powerhouses that supply the body with energy, weren’t functioning at full capacity in space. While further study is needed, the NIH-funded team led by Kumar Sharma, University of Texas Health Science Center, San Antonio, suggests that changes in the mitochondria might underlie changes often seen in space to the human cardiovascular system, kidneys, and eyes.

Of course, such a small, two-person study makes it hard to draw any general conclusions about human health in space. But the comparisons certainly help to point us in the right direction. They provide a framework for understanding how the human body responds on a molecular and cellular level to microgravity over time. They also may hold important lessons for understanding human health and precision medicine down here on Earth.

I look forward to future space missions and their contributions to biomedical research. I’m also happy to report, it will be a short wait.

Last year, I highlighted the Tissue Chips in Space Initiative. It’s a unique collaboration between NIH and NASA in which dozens of human tissue chips—tiny, 3D devices bioengineered to model different tissues and organs—will be sent to the International Space Station to study the accelerated aging that occurs in space.

The first tissue chips were sent to the International Space Station last December. And I’m pleased to report that more were aboard recently when the SpaceX Dragon cargo spacecraft made a resupply run to the International Space Station. On May 8, astronauts there successfully completed offloading miniaturized tissue chips of the lungs, bone marrow, and kidneys, enabling more truly unique science in low gravity that couldn’t be performed down here on Earth.

Reference:

[1] The NASA Twins Study: A multidimensional analysis of a year-long human spaceflight. Garrett-Bakelman FE, Darshi M, Green SJ, Gur RC, Lin L, Macias BR, et. al. Science. 2019 Apr 12;364(6436).

Links:

Twins Study (NASA)

Launches and Landings (NASA. Washington, D.C.)

Kumar Sharma (University of Texas Health Science Center, San Antonio)

Tissue Chips in Space (National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences/NIH)

NIH Support: National Institute on Aging; National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases


Largest-Ever Alzheimer’s Gene Study Brings New Answers

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Alzheimer's Risk Genes

Predicting whether someone will get Alzheimer’s disease (AD) late in life, and how to use that information for prevention, has been an intense focus of biomedical research. The goal of this work is to learn not only about the genes involved in AD, but how they work together and with other complex biological, environmental, and lifestyle factors to drive this devastating neurological disease.

It’s good news to be able to report that an international team of researchers, partly funded by NIH, has made more progress in explaining the genetic component of AD. Their analysis, involving data from more than 35,000 individuals with late-onset AD, has identified variants in five new genes that put people at greater risk of AD [1]. It also points to molecular pathways involved in AD as possible avenues for prevention, and offers further confirmation of 20 other genes that had been implicated previously in AD.

The results of this largest-ever genomic study of AD suggests key roles for genes involved in the processing of beta-amyloid peptides, which form plaques in the brain recognized as an important early indicator of AD. They also offer the first evidence for a genetic link to proteins that bind tau, the protein responsible for telltale tangles in the AD brain that track closely with a person’s cognitive decline.

The new findings are the latest from the International Genomics of Alzheimer’s Project (IGAP) consortium, led by a large, collaborative team including Brian Kunkle and Margaret Pericak-Vance, University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, Miami, FL. The effort, spanning four consortia focused on AD in the United States and Europe, was launched in 2011 with the aim of discovering and mapping all the genes that contribute to AD.

An earlier IGAP study including about 25,500 people with late-onset AD identified 20 common gene variants that influence a person’s risk for developing AD late in life [2]. While that was terrific progress to be sure, the analysis also showed that those gene variants could explain only a third of the genetic component of AD. It was clear more genes with ties to AD were yet to be found.

So, in the study reported in Nature Genetics, the researchers expanded the search. While so-called genome-wide association studies (GWAS) are generally useful in identifying gene variants that turn up often in association with particular diseases or other traits, the ones that arise more rarely require much larger sample sizes to find.

To increase their odds of finding additional variants, the researchers analyzed genomic data for more than 94,000 individuals, including more than 35,000 with a diagnosis of late-onset AD and another 60,000 older people without AD. Their search led them to variants in five additional genes, named IQCK, ACE, ADAM10, ADAMTS1, and WWOX, associated with late-onset AD that hadn’t turned up in the previous study.

Further analysis of those genes supports a view of AD in which groups of genes work together to influence risk and disease progression. In addition to some genes influencing the processing of beta-amyloid peptides and accumulation of tau proteins, others appear to contribute to AD via certain aspects of the immune system and lipid metabolism.

Each of these newly discovered variants contributes only a small amount of increased risk, and therefore probably have limited value in predicting an average person’s risk of developing AD later in life. But they are invaluable when it comes to advancing our understanding of AD’s biological underpinnings and pointing the way to potentially new treatment approaches. For instance, these new data highlight intriguing similarities between early-onset and late-onset AD, suggesting that treatments developed for people with the early-onset form also might prove beneficial for people with the more common late-onset disease.

It’s worth noting that the new findings continue to suggest that the search is not yet over—many more as-yet undiscovered rare variants likely play a role in AD. The search for answers to AD and so many other complex health conditions—assisted through collaborative data sharing efforts such as this one—continues at an accelerating pace.

References:

[1] Genetic meta-analysis of diagnosed Alzheimer’s disease identifies new risk loci and implicates Aβ, tau, immunity and lipid processing. Kunkle BW, Grenier-Boley B, Sims R, Bis JC, et. al. Nat Genet. 2019 Mar;51(3):414-430.

[2] Meta-analysis of 74,046 individuals identifies 11 new susceptibility loci for Alzheimer’s disease. Lambert JC, Ibrahim-Verbaas CA, Harold D, Naj AC, Sims R, Bellenguez C, DeStafano AL, Bis JC, et al. Nat Genet. 2013 Dec;45(12):1452-8.

Links:

Alzheimer’s Disease Genetics Fact Sheet (National Institute on Aging/NIH)

Genome-Wide Association Studies (NIH)

Margaret Pericak-Vance (University of Miami Health System, FL)

NIH Support: National Institute on Aging; National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; National Human Genome Research Institute; National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development; National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Disease; National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke


Study Shows Genes Unique to Humans Tied to Bigger Brains

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cortical organoid

Caption: Cortical organoid, showing radial glial stem cells (green) and cortical neurons (red).
Credit: Sofie Salama, University of California, Santa Cruz

In seeking the biological answer to the question of what it means to be human, the brain’s cerebral cortex is a good place to start. This densely folded, outer layer of grey matter, which is vastly larger in Homo sapiens than in other primates, plays an essential role in human consciousness, language, and reasoning.

Now, an NIH-funded team has pinpointed a key set of genes—found only in humans—that may help explain why our species possesses such a large cerebral cortex. Experimental evidence shows these genes prolong the development of stem cells that generate neurons in the cerebral cortex, which in turn enables the human brain to produce more mature cortical neurons and, thus, build a bigger cerebral cortex than our fellow primates.

That sounds like a great advantage for humans! But there’s a downside. Researchers found the same genomic changes that facilitated the expansion of the human cortex may also render our species more susceptible to certain rare neurodevelopmental disorders.


Of Mice and Men: Study Pinpoints Genes Essential for Life

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Many people probably think of mice as unwanted household pests. But over more than a century, mice have proven to be incredibly valuable in medical research. One of many examples is how studies in mice are now helping researchers understand how mammalian genomes work, including the human genome. Scientists have spent decades inactivating, or “knocking out,” individual genes in laboratory mice to learn which tissues or organs are affected when a specific gene is out of order, providing valuable clues about its function.

More than a decade ago, NIH initiated a project called KOMP—the Knockout Mouse Project [1]. The goal was to use homologous recombination (exchange of similar or identical DNA) in embryonic stem cells from a standard mouse strain to knock out all of the mouse protein-coding genes. That work has led to wide availability of such cell lines to investigators with interest in specific genes, saving time and money. But it’s one thing to have a cell line with the gene knocked out, it’s even more interesting (and challenging) to determine the phenotype, or observable characteristics, of each knockout. To speed up that process in a scientifically rigorous and systematic manner, NIH and other research funding agencies teamed to launch an international research consortium to turn those embryonic stem cells into mice, and ultimately to catalogue the functions of the roughly 20,000 genes that mice and humans share. The consortium has just released an analysis of the phenotypes of the first 1,751 new lines of unique “knockout mice” with much more to come in the months ahead. This initial work confirms that about a third of all protein-coding genes are essential for live birth, helping to fill in a major gap in our understanding of the genome.


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