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Causal inference of regulator-target pairs by gene mapping of expression phenotypes

Background Correlations between polymorphic markers and observed phenotypes provide the basis for mapping traits in quantitative genetics. When the phenotype is gene expression, then loci involved in regulatory control can theoretically be implicated. Recent efforts to construct gene regulatory networks from genotype and gene expression data have shown that biologically relevant networks can be achieved from an integrative approach. In this paper, we consider the problem of identifying individual pairs of genes in a direct or indirect, causal, trans-acting relationship. Results Inspired by epistatic models of multi-locus quantitative trait (QTL) mapping, we propose a unified model of expression and genotype to identify quantitative trait genes (QTG) by extending the conventional linear model to include both genotype and expression of regulator genes and their interactions. The model provides mapping of specific genes in contrast to standard linkage approaches that implicate large QTL intervals typically containing tens of genes. In simulations, we found that the method can often detect weak trans-acting regulators amid the background noise of thousands of traits and is robust to transcription models containing multiple regulator genes. We reanalyze several pleiotropic loci derived from a large set of yeast matings and identify a likely alternative regulator not previously published. However, we also found that many regulators can not be so easily mapped due to the presence of cis-acting QTLs on the regulators, which induce close linkage among small neighborhoods of genes. QTG mapped regulator-target pairs linked to ARN1 were combined to form a regulatory module, which we observed to be highly enriched in iron homeostasis related genes and contained several causally directed links that had not been identified in other automatic reconstructions of that regulatory module. Finally, we also confirm the surprising, previously published results that regulators controlling gene expression are not enriched for transcription factors, but we do show that our more precise mapping model reveals functional enrichment for several other biological processes related to the regulation of the cell. Conclusion By incorporating interacting expression and genotype, our QTG mapping method can identify specific regulator genes in contrast to standard QTL interval mapping. We have shown that the method can recover biologically significant regulator-target pairs and the approach leads to a general framework for inducing a regulatory module network topology of directed and undirected edges that can be used to identify leads in pathway analysis.