Article Abstract

The search for gene-gene interactions in genome-wide association studies: challenges in abundance of methods, practical considerations, and biological interpretation

Authors: Marylyn D. Ritchie, Kristel Van Steen


One of the primary goals in this era of precision medicine is to understand the biology of human diseases and their treatment, such that each individual patient receives the best possible treatment for their disease based on their genetic and environmental exposures. One way to work towards achieving this goal is to identify the environmental exposures and genetic variants that are relevant to each disease in question, as well as the complex interplay between genes and environment. Genome-wide association studies (GWAS) have allowed for a greater understanding of the genetic component of many complex traits. However, these genetic effects are largely small and thus, our ability to use these GWAS finding for precision medicine is limited. As more and more GWAS have been performed, rather than focusing only on common single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) and additive genetic models, many researchers have begun to explore alternative heritable components of complex traits including rare variants, structural variants, epigenetics, and genetic interactions. While genetic interactions are a plausible reality that could explain some of the heritabliy that has not yet been identified, especially when one considers the identification of genetic interactions in model organisms as well as our understanding of biological complexity, still there are significant challenges and considerations in identifying these genetic interactions. Broadly, these can be summarized in three categories: abundance of methods, practical considerations, and biological interpretation. In this review, we will discuss these important elements in the search for genetic interactions along with some potential solutions. While genetic interactions are theoretically understood to be important for complex human disease, the body of evidence is still building to support this component of the underlying genetic architecture of complex human traits. Our hope is that more sophisticated modeling approaches and more robust computational techniques will enable the community to identify these important genetic interactions and improve our ability to implement precision medicine in the future.