Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) poses an impending clinical burden. Genome-wide association studies have revealed a limited contribution of genomic variants to the disease, requiring alternative but robust approaches to identify disease-associated variants and genes. We carried out a disease-specific expression quantitative trait loci (eQTL) screen to identify novel genetic factors that specifically act on NAFLD progression on the basis of genotype.We recruited 125 Korean biopsy-proven NAFLD patients and healthy individuals and performed eQTL analyses using 21,272 transcripts and 3,234,941 genotyped and imputed SNPs. We then selected eQTLs that were detected only in the NAFLD group, but not in the control group (i.e., NAFLD-eQTLs). An additional cohort of 162 Korean NAFLD individuals was used for replication. The function of the selected eQTL toward NAFLD development was validated using HepG2, primary hepatocytes and NAFLD mouse models.The NAFLD-specific eQTL screening yielded 242 loci. Among them, AGXT2, encoding alanine-glyoxylate aminotransferase 2, displayed decreased expression in NAFLD patients homozygous for the non-reference allele of rs2291702, compared to no-NAFLD subjects with the same genotype (P = 4.79 × 10-6). This change was replicated in an additional 162 individuals, yielding a combined P-value of 8.05 × 10-8 from a total of 245 NAFLD patients and 48 controls. Knockdown of AGXT2 induced palmitate-overloaded hepatocyte death by increasing ER stress, and exacerbated NAFLD diet-induced liver fibrosis in mice. However, overexpression of AGXT2 reversely attenuated liver fibrosis and steatosis as well.We implicate a new molecular role of AGXT2 in NAFLD. Our overall approach will serve as an efficient tool for uncovering novel genetic factors that contribute to liver steatosis and fibrosis in patients with NAFLD.Elucidating causal genes for NAFLD has been challenging due to limited tissue availability and the polygenic nature of the disease. Using liver and blood samples from 125 biopsy-proven NAFLD and no-NAFLD Korean individuals and an additional 162 individuals for replication, we devised a new analytic method to identify causal genes. Among the candidates, we found that AGXT2-rs2291702 protects against liver fibrosis in a genotype-dependent manner with the potential for therapeutic interventions. Our approach enables the discovery of NAFLD causal genes that act on the basis of genotype.
Taekyeong Yoo, Sae Kyung Joo, Hyo Jung Kim, Hyun Young Kim, Hyungtai Sim, Jieun Lee, Hee-Hoon Kim, Sunhee Jung, Youngha Lee, Oveis Jamialahmadi, Stefano Romeo, Won-Il Jeong, Geum-Sook Hwang, Keon Wook Kang, Jae Woo Kim, Won Kim, Murim Choi, Innovative Target Exploration of NAFLD (ITEN) consortium