The impact of sex on gene expression across human tissues

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INTRODUCTION: Many complex human phenotypes, including diseases, exhibit sex-differentiated characteristics. These sex differences have been variously attributed to hormones, sex chromosomes, genotype × sex effects, differences in behavior, and differences in environmental exposures; however, their mechanisms and underlying biology remain largely unknown. The Genotype-Tissue Expression (GTEx) project provides an opportunity to investigate the prevalence and genetic mechanisms of sex differences in the human transcriptome by surveying many tissues that have not previously been characterized in this manner. RATIONALE: To characterize sex differences in the human transcriptome and its regulation, and to discover how sex and genetics interact to influence complex traits and disease, we generated a catalog of sex differences in gene expression and its genetic regulation across 44 human tissue sources surveyed by the GTEx project (v8 data release), analyzing 16,245 RNA-sequencing samples and genotypes of 838 adult individuals. We report sex differences in gene expression levels, tissue cell type composition, and cis expression quantitative trait loci (cis-eQTLs). To assess their impact, we integrated these results with gene function, transcription factor binding annotation, and genome-wide association study (GWAS) summary statistics of 87 GWASs. RESULTS: Sex effects on gene expression are ubiquitous (13,294 sex-biased genes across all tissues). However, these effects are small and largely tissue-specific. Genes with sex-differentiated expression are not primarily driven by tissue-specific gene expression and are involved in a diverse set of biological functions, such as drug and hormone response, embryonic development and tissue morphogenesis, fertilization, sexual reproduction and spermatogenesis, fat metabolism, cancer, and immune response. Whereas X-linked genes with higher expression in females suggest candidates for escape from X-chromosome inactivation, sex-biased expression of autosomal genes suggests hormone-related transcription factor regulation and a role for additional transcription factors, as well as sex-differentiated distribution of epigenetic marks, particularly histone H3 Lys27 trimethylation (H3K27me3). Sex differences in the genetic regulation of gene expression are much less common (369 sex-biased eQTLs across all tissues) and are highly tissue-specific. We identified 58 gene-trait associations driven by genetic regulation of gene expression in a single sex. These include loci where sex-differentiated cell type abundances mediate genotype-phenotype associations, as well as loci where sex may play a more direct role in the underlying molecular mechanism of the association. For example, we identified a female-specific eQTL in liver for the hexokinase HKDC1 that influences glucose metabolism in pregnant females, which is subsequently reflected in the birth weight of the offspring. CONCLUSION: By integrating sex-aware analyses of GTEx data with gene function and transcription factor binding annotations, we describe tissue-specific and tissue-shared drivers and mechanisms contributing to sex differences in the human transcriptome and eQTLs. We discovered multiple sex-differentiated genetic effects on gene expression that colocalize with complex trait genetic associations, thereby facilitating the mechanistic interpretation of GWAS signals. Because the causative tissue is unknown for many phenotypes, analysis of the diverse GTEx tissue collection can serve as a powerful resource for investigations into the basis of sex-biased traits. This work provides an extensive characterization of sex differences in the human transcriptome and its genetic regulation.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbereaba3066
Issue number6509
StatePublished - 1 Sep 2020

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General


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