Inter-organ communication is a vital process to maintain physiologic homeostasis, and its dysregulation contributes to many human diseases. Beginning with the discovery of insulin over a century ago, characterization of molecules responsible for signal between tissues has required careful and elegant experimentation where these observations have been integral to deciphering physiology and disease. Given that circulating bioactive factors are stable in serum, occur naturally, and are easily assayed from blood, they present obvious focal molecules for therapeutic intervention and biomarker development. For example, physiologic dissection of the actions of soluble proteins such as proprotein convertase subtilisin/kexin type 9 (PCSK9) and glucagon-like peptide 1 (GLP1) have yielded among the most promising therapeutics to treat cardiovascular disease and obesity, respectively1–4. A major obstacle in the characterization of such soluble factors is that defining their tissues and pathways of action requires extensive experimental testing in cells and animal models. Recently, studies have shown that secreted proteins mediating inter-tissue signaling could be identified by “brute-force” surveys of all genes within RNA-sequencing measures across tissues within a population5–9. Expanding on this intuition, we reasoned that parallel strategies could be leveraged to understand how individual genes mediate signaling across metabolic tissues through correlative analysis of genetic variation. Thus, genetics could aid in understanding cross-organ signaling by adopting a genecentric approach. Here, we surveyed gene-gene genetic correlation structure for ∼6.1×10^12 gene pairs across 18 metabolic tissues in 310 individuals where variation of genes such as FGF21, ADIPOQ, GCG and IL6 showed enrichments which recapitulate experimental observations.
Further, similar analyses were applied to explore both local signaling mechanisms (liver PCSK9) as well as genes encoding enzymes producing metabolites (adipose PNPLA2), where genetic correlation structure aligned with known roles for these critical metabolic pathways. Finally, we utilized this resource to suggest new functions for metabolic coordination between organs. For example, we prioritized key proteins for putative signaling between skeletal muscle and hippocampus, and further suggest colon as a central coordinator for systemic circadian clocks.
We refer to this resource as Genetically-Derived Correlations Across Tissues (GD-CAT) where all tools and data are built into a web portal enabling users to perform these analyses without a single line of code (gdcat.org). This resource enables querying of any gene in any tissue to find genetic coregulation of genes, cell types, pathways and network architectures across metabolic organs.
The tool developed and implemented in this study has valuable significance for the combined analysis of large, diverse omics datasets, but some of the methodology is incomplete. Regarding the strength of evidence, there are some more significant concerns regarding potentially inadequate controls for false discovery and multiple testing corrections.
Genetic correlation structure recapitulates established mechanisms of metabolic signaling –
Previous studies have established that “brute force” analyses of genetic correlation structure across tissues can identify new mechanisms of organ cross-talk. These were accomplished by surveying the global regression structure using all genes, whereby skewed upper-limits of significance distributions were sufficient to prioritize proteins which elicit signaling5–9. Following this intuition, we hypothesized that a paralleled but alternative approach to genetic correlation structure could be exploited to understand the functional consequences of specific genes. To test this hypothesis, we initially examined pan-tissue genetic correlation structures for several well-established mechanisms of tissue crosstalk via secreted proteins which contribute significantly to metabolic homeostasis. We utilized the most comprehensive pan-tissue dataset in humans (GTEx)10, which was filtered for individuals where most metabolic tissues were sequenced9. Collectively, this dataset contains 310 individuals, consisting of 210 male and 100 female (self-reported) subjects between the ages of 20-79. Gene correlation structure showed strong overlap with known physiologic roles of given endocrine proteins. For example, variation with subcutaneous adipose expression of ADIPOQ was enriched with genes in several metabolic tissues where it has been known to act (Fig 1A, left). In particular, subcutaneous adipose ADIPOQ expression correlated with fatty acid oxidative process locally in adipose (Fig 1A, middle) and was enriched with ribosomal biogenesis in skeletal muscle (Fig 1C, right). These genetic observations align with the established physiologic roles of the protein in that fat secreted adiponectin when oxidation is stimulated11,12 and muscle is a major site of action13. Beyond adiponectin, genetic correlation structure additionally recapitulated broad signaling mechanisms for other relevant endocrine proteins. For example, intestinal GCG (encoding GLP1), liver FGF21 and skeletal muscle IL6 showed binning patterns and pathway enrichments related to their known functions in pancreas1,14, adipose tissue15,16 and other metabolic organs17, respectively. Next, we wanted to ask whether our approach of analyzing genetic correlation structure across tissue for endocrine proteins was also sufficient to define local signaling mechanisms or actions of enzymes producing metabolites that signal in circulation. Dissimilar to the cross-tissue distributions of significance in Fig 1, the same analysis of liver PCSK9 highlighted exclusively local genes which were genetically coregulated (Fig 2A), in particular those involved in cholesterol metabolism/homeostasis (Fig 2B). Consistent with the established role for PCSK9 as a primary degradation mechanism of LDLR4,18, network model construction of genetically coregulated genes highlighted the gene as a central node linking cholesterol biosynthetic pathways with those involved in other metabolic pathways such as insulin signaling (Fig 2C). Given that organ signaling via metabolites comprises many critical processes among multicellular organisms, our next goal was to apply this gene-centric analyses to established mechanisms of metabolite signaling. The gene PNPLA2 encodes adipose triglyceride lipase (ATGL) which localizes to lipid droplets and breaks down triglycerides for oxidation or mobilization as free fatty acids for peripheral tissues19. Variation in expression of PNPLA2 showed highly significant local enrichments with beta oxidation pathways in adipose tissue (Fig 2D). Muscle pathways enriched for the gene were represented by sarcomere organization and muscle contraction (Fig 2F). Construction of an undirected network from genetic data placed the gene as a central node between the two tissues, linking regulators of adipose oxidation (Fig 2F, red) to muscle contractile process (Fig 2F, purple) where additional strongly co-correlated genes were implicated as additional candidates (Fig 2F). In sum, these analyses demonstrate that simple surveys of genetic correlation structure using a gene-centric approach recapitulates established aspects of metabolic signaling both within and across organs.
Focused analyses of genetic correlation structure identifies pan-tissue links between circadian clocks
Following confirmation that a gene-centric approach to analysis of genetic correlation structure was sufficient to recapitulate discrete physiologic mechanisms, our next goal was to leverage this approach to understand new modes of coordination between metabolic organs. Shifts in biological rhythms have been associated with nearly every aspect of maintenance of metabolic homeostasis and associated diseases, where in many experimental settings have been demonstrated to play causal roles20,21. Oscillations in circadian rhythms have recently been shown to be tightly-linked across tissue22 where communication between clocks is perturbed in states such as high-fat feeding23,24. To evaluate genetic concordance of tissue-specific clocks, we surveyed co-correlation structure between organ clock genes in the same 310 individuals (Fig 3A). While defining mechanisms of circadian rhythms require careful control of temporal collection, it is worth noting that recent analysis of GTEx unveiled modes of sex-specific temporal expression25. In our analysis focused simply on genetic variation, clock genes appeared more strongly correlated within, rather than between tissues. While most rhythmic genes appeared positively correlated (purple) across tissues, several areas of strong negative correlations appeared such as between hypothalamus and spleen or pancreas (Fig 3A). To define which tissue clocks showed the strongest level of average concordance of rhythms systemically, clock gene correlations were summarized by counting the number of significant correlations (regression Pvalue <0.001) across all tissues. This analysis showed that colon and heart clock genes appeared top-ranked and thus, most central in their correlation with rhythm genes in other peripheral tissues (Fig 3B). Consistent with this observation, the core clock transcriptional regulator, BMAL1 (ARNTL) was significantly correlated with ARNTL across nearly every metabolic tissue (Fig 3C). In colon, ARNTL has been demonstrated to play key roles in systemic metabolism26,27, where disruption leads to severe consequences such as cancer28,28. For example, genetic ablation of ARNTL in mice exacerbates colon cancer development through loss-of-heterozygosity of APC29. To further refine what cell types might be involved, bulk sequencing was subjected to single-cell deconvolution (methods) where cell types were correlated with gene expression in the 310 individuals. Within colon, ARNTL was most strongly enriched with endothelial cells, enteroendocrine cells and fibroblasts (Fig 3D); while outside of colon the gene showed enrichments with kidney, small intestine and liver (Fig 3E). These analyses suggest colon as an important clock-controlled tissue, where variation in ARNTL expression is strongly correlated with peripheral clocks and relevant metabolic cell types such as gut enteroendocrine cells and kidney macrophages. Given the nature of enteroendocrine cells in regulating hormones such as GLP1, these interactions with biological rhythms merit further investigation.
Genetic correlation analysis prioritizes proteins involved in muscle-brain signaling
Communication between muscle and brain has attracted significant recent attention as a potential mechanistic link between the beneficial effects of exercise and improved cognitive outcomes30,31. For example, muscle-expressed proteins BDNF32,33 and FNDC5/Irisin34,35 have been shown to enhance learning and memory in mice models. To uncover additional putative endocrine factors involved in muscle-brain signaling, we surveyed genetic correlation structure between all muscle genes encoding secreted proteins5,7–9 and expression variation in the hippocampus (Fig 4A).
Among the top-ranked genes, previously-established myokines were observed such as FNDC5 and IL6. Application of gene-centric analyses highlighted select muscle-hippocampal pathways which were enriched with signaling mechanisms. For example, expression of muscle ADAMTS17 was negatively correlated with local contraction-associated pathways (Fig 4B) and neuron development pathways in hippocampus (Fig 4C). Dissimilar to ADAMTS17 and consistent with its established roles in muscle-brain signaling, muscle-expressed FNDC5 was positively associated with respiratory pathways in muscle (Fig 4D) and chemical synaptic signaling in brain (Fig 4E). In addition, myonectin/ERFE showed a link between negatively-correlated ion flux (Fig 4F) in muscle and FGF-mediated signaling in brain (Fig 4G). While ADAMTS17 and myonectin/ERFE have been shown to regulate skeletonegesis36 and liver metabolism/iron homeostasis37–40, the suggested links to brain, hippocampus and neurons derived from genetic correlations presents potentially novel signaling mechanisms.
Construction of a web tool to survey genetically-derived correlations across tissues (GD-CAT)
These analyses demonstrate that systematic surveys of genetic correlation structure across metabolic tissues are sufficient to recapitulate several known and potentially novel modes of inter-tissue signaling. Our next goal was to establish a user-friendly interface where all of these analyses and gene-centric queries could be performed without writing a single line of code. To accomplish this, we assembled a complete analysis pipeline (Fig 4H) as a shiny-app and docker image hosted in a freely-available web address (gdcat.org). Here, users can readily-search genetic correlation structure from filtered GTEx data across tissues. Initially, users select a given genetic sex (or combines both) which loads the specified environment, where subsequent downstream analyses are implemented. Next, a specific gene is selected from one of the 18 tissues listed, which is then correlated cross all other gene-tissue combinations (748,280 total) using Biweight midcorrelation41. Next, Benjamini-Hochberg FDR adjustments are applied to the distribution of regression p-values where pie charts provide the tissue-specific occurrences of correlated genes at 3 thresholds (q<0.1, q<0.01, q<0.001). From these charts, users are able to select a given tissue, where overrepresentation tests using enrichR42 are applied to the strongest positively and negatively correlated genes. Our previous studies suggested that usage of the top 500 genes demonstrated a relatively informative pathway enrichment profile5, so the number is capped at 500 for a given qvalue threshold. In addition to general queries of gene ∼ gene correlation structure, we included the top cell-type abundance correlations with each gene as well. To compute cell abundance estimates from the same individuals, we used single-nucleus RNA-seq available from GTEx43 and applied cellular deconvolution methods to the bulk RNA-seq44. Comparison of deconvolution methods44 showed that DeconRNASeq45 captured the most cell types within visceral adipose, subcutaneous adipose, aortic artery, coronary artery, transverse colon, sigmoid colon, the heart left ventricle, the kidney cortex, liver, lung, skeletal muscle, spleen, and small intestine.(Supplemental Figures 1-3) and therefore was applied to all tissues where sn-RNA-seq was available. The inferred abundances of cell types from each individual are correlated across user-defined genes, with the bicor coefficient plotted for each cell type. We note that sn-RNA-seq within the brain, stomach and thyroid are not available within the human cell atlas and therefore, not present in these analyses.
Limitations and Conclusions –
Several key limitations should be considered when exploring GD-CAT for mechanisms of inter-tissue signaling. Primarily, the fact that correlation-based analyses could reflect both causal or reactive patterns of variation. While several statistical methods such as mediation46,47 and mendelian randomization48,49 exist to further refine causal inferences, likely the only definitive method to distinguish is in carefully-designed experimentation. Further, pantissue correlations tend to be dominated by local regressions where a given gene is expressed. This is due to the fact that within-tissue correlations could capture both the regulatory and putative consequences of gene regulation, and distinguishing between the two presents a significant challenge. In addition, the analyses presented are derived from genetic differences of gene expression. Expression of a gene and its corresponding protein can show substantial discordances depending on the dataset used. We note that for genes encoding proteins where actions from acute secretion grossly outweigh patterns of gene expression, such as insulin, caution should be taken when interpreting results. As the depth and availability of tissue-specific proteomic levels across diverse individuals continues to increase, an exciting opportunity is presented to explore the applicability of these analyses and identify areas when gene expression is not a sufficient measure.
The queries provided in GD-CAT use fairly simple linear models to infer organ-organ signaling; however, more sophisticated methods can also be applied in an informative fashion. For example, Koplev et al generated co-expression modules from 9 tissues in the STARNET dataset, where construction of a massive Bayesian network uncovered interactions between genetically correlated modules6. Further, development of MultiCens, a tool to uncover communication between genes and tissues has helped to determine central processes which exist in multi-layered data relevant for Alzheimer’s disease50. In addition, Jadhav and colleagues adopted a machine learning approach to mine published literature for relationships between hormones and genes51. Further, association mapping of plasma proteomics data has been extensively applied and intersection with genome-wide association disease loci has offered intriguing potential disease mechanisms52,53. Another common application to single-cell sequencing data is to search for overrepresentation of known ligan-receptor pairs between cell types54. These and additional applications to explore tissue communication/coordination present unique strengths and caveats, depending on the specific usage desired.
In sum we demonstrate that adopting a gene-centric approach to surveying genetic correlation structure can inform mechanism of coordination between metabolic tissues. Initially, we queried several well-establish and key mediators of physiologic homeostasis, such as FGF21, GCG and PCSK9. These approaches are further suggested to be applicable to mechanisms of metabolite signaling, as evident by pan-tissue investigation of adipose PNPLA2. Beyond recapitulation of established mechanisms of tissue communication, similar approaches can be applied to uncover genetic patterns of potentially new signaling. For example, our analyses suggest colon as a central node of circadian rhythm genes and prioritized putative signaling between muscle and brain. To facilitate widespread access and use of this gene-centric analysis of genetic correlation, a full suite of analyses such as those performed here can be performed from a labhosted server (gdcat.org) or in isolation from a shiny app or docker image.
Material and methods
Availability of web tool and analyses
All analyses, datasets and scripts used to generate the associated web tool (GD-CAT) can be accessed via: https://github.com/mingqizh/GD-CAT or within the associated docker image. In addition, access to the GD-CAT web tool is also available through the web portal gdcat.org. This portal was created to provide a user-friendly interface for accessing and using the GD-CAT tool without the need to download or install any software or packages. Users can simply visit the website, process data and start using the tool.
Corresponding tutorial and the other resources were made available to facilitate the utilization of the web tool on GitHub. The interface and server of the web were built and linked based on the shiny package using R (v. 4.2.0). Shiny package provides a powerful tool for building interactive web applications using R, allowing for fast and flexible development of custom applications with minimal coding required.
Data sources and availability –
All data used in this study can be immediately accessed via web tool or docker to facilitate analysis. Metabolic tissue data was accessed through GTEx V8 downloads portal on August 18, 2021 and previously described9,10. These raw data can also be readily accessed from the associated R-based walkthrough: https://github.com/Leandromvelez/myokine-signaling. Briefly, these data were filtered to retain genes which were detected across tissues where individuals were required to show counts > 0 in 1.2e6 gene-tissue combinations across all data. Given that our goal was to look across tissues at enrichments, this was done to limit spurious influence of genes only expressed in specific tissues in specific individuals.
Selection of secreted proteins and circadian rhythm genes–
To determine which genes encode proteins known to be secreted as myokines (Fig 4), gene lists were accessed from the Universal Protein Resource which has compiled literature annotations terms for secretion55. Specifically, the query terms to access these lists were: locations:(location:”Secreted [SL-0243]” type:component) AND organism:”Homo sapiens (Human) ” where 3666 total entries were found. Genes encoding relevant circadian rhythm regulators (Fig 3) were used from manually-curated lists and previously described29.
Regression analyses across tissues
Regression coefficients and corresponding p-values within and across tissues were generated using WGCNA bicorandpvalue() function41. Associated qvalue adjustments were applied using the Benjamini-Hochberg FDR from the R package “stats”.
Pathway enrichment analyses
Pathway enrichments were generated using overrepresentation tests among Gene Ontology (Biological Process) and Reactome databases using the R package enrichR. For this analysis, upper limits of 500 genes were set to perform enrichments where if a lesser number occurred at indicated qvalue threshold, the maximum number of genes was used.
Deconvolution of bulk tissue seq data
All scripts and deconvolution data produced is available at: https://github.com/cvan859/deconvolution. Briefly, sn-RNA-seq data was accessed from the Human cell atlas43 for matching organ datasets with metabolic tissues. From these data, 4 deconvolution methods were applied using ADAPTS44 where DeconRNA-Seq45 was selected for its ability to capture the abundances of the most cell types across tissues such as liver heart and skeletal muscle (Supplemental Fig 1-3). The full combined matrix was assembled for DeconRNA-Seq results across individuals in GTEx where correlations between cell types and genes was performed also using WGCNA41.
We acknowledge the following funding sources for supporting these studies: MZ, CF, LMV, CV, CJ and MMS were supported by NIH grants HL138193, DK130640 and DK097771. ALH is supported by NIH grants U54 DK120342, R01 DK109724, and P30 DK063491. NRP is supported by NIH grant R37 CA266042. HB was supported by National Research Foundation of Korea (2021R1A6A3A14039132). JL was supported by an NIH grant F31DK134173-01A1. CJ was supported by AASLD Foundation Pinnacle Research Award in Liver Disease, Edward Mallinckrodt, Jr. Foundation Award, and an NIH grant AA029124.
MZ, CV and MMS accessed raw data, performed analyses and drafted the manuscript. MZ assembled the shiny application, where IV and RP designed the UCI infrastructure to enable access. CJ, LMV, JM, CF, RY, HB, JL, NL, IM, AH, LMS, JNJ, EEK, IM, NP, DN and BM provided critical insight into data use and interpretation, as well as guided the study. CJ and SM guided tool design involving metabolite signaling and circadian rhythms, respectively, as well as provided app infrastructure. All authors have approved the current manuscript. All authors read and approved this manuscript.
Conflict of interest
The authors have no conflicts of interest to declare
Supplemental Figure 1:Performance across 4 methods of cell-type deconvolution where relative proportions of cells (y-axis) are shown for all cell types annotated in single-cell reference (x-axis) in Liver.
Supplemental Figure 2:Performance across 4 methods of cell-type deconvolution where relative proportions of cells (y-axis) are shown for all cell types annotated in single-cell reference (x-axis) in Heart.
Supplemental Figure 2:Performance across 4 methods of cell-type deconvolution where relative proportions of cells (y-axis) are shown for all cell types annotated in single-cell reference (x-axis) in Skeletal Muscle.
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