Osteoporosis- and obesity-risk interrelationships: an epigenetic analysis of GWAS-derived SNPs at the developmental gene TBX15

A major challenge in translating findings from genome-wide association studies (GWAS) to biological mechanisms is pinpointing functional variants because only a very small percentage of variants associated with a given trait actually impact the trait. We used an extensive epigenetics, transcriptomics, and genetics analysis of the TBX15/WARS2 neighbourhood to prioritize this region’s best-candidate causal variants for the genetic risk of osteoporosis (estimated bone density, eBMD) and obesity (waist-hip ratio or waist circumference adjusted for body mass index). TBX15 encodes a transcription factor that is important in bone development and adipose biology. Manual curation of 692 GWAS-derived variants gave eight strong candidates for causal SNPs that modulate TBX15 transcription in subcutaneous adipose tissue (SAT) or osteoblasts, which highly and specifically express this gene. None of these SNPs were prioritized by Bayesian fine-mapping. The eight regulatory causal SNPs were in enhancer or promoter chromatin seen preferentially in SAT or osteoblasts at TBX15 intron-1 or upstream. They overlap strongly predicted, allele-specific transcription factor binding sites. Our analysis suggests that these SNPs act independently of two missense SNPs in TBX15. Remarkably, five of the regulatory SNPs were associated with eBMD and obesity and had the same trait-increasing allele for both. We found that WARS2 obesity-related SNPs can be ascribed to high linkage disequilibrium with TBX15 intron-1 SNPs. Our findings from GWAS index, proxy, and imputed SNPs suggest that a few SNPs, including three in a 0.7-kb cluster, act as causal regulatory variants to fine-tune TBX15 expression and, thereby, affect both obesity and osteoporosis risk.