Mutations causing complex disease may under certain circumstances be protective in an epidemiological sense

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Guided by the practice of classical epidemiology, research into the genetic basis of complex disease has usually taken for granted the dictum that causative mutations are invariably over-represented among clinically affected as compared to unaffected individuals. However, we show that this supposition is not true and that a mutation contributing to the etiology of a complex disease can, under certain circumstances, be depleted among patients. Populations with defined disease prevalence were repeatedly simulated under a Wright- Fisher model, assuming various types of population history and genotype-phenotype relationship. For each simulation, the resulting mutation-specific population frequencies and odds ratios (ORs) were evaluated. In addition, the relationship between mutation frequency and OR was studied using real data from the NIH GWAS catalogue of reported phenotype associations of single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs). While rare diseases (prevalence <1%) were found to be consistently caused by rare mutations with Ors>1, up to 20% of mutations causing a pandemic disease (prevalence 10-20%) had Ors<1, and their population frequency ranged from 0% to 100%. Moreover, simulation-based ORs exhibited a wide distribution, irrespective of mutation frequency. In conclusion, a substantial proportion of mutations causing common complex diseases may appear 'protective' in genetic epidemiological studies and hence would normally tend to be excluded, albeit erroneously, from further study. This apparently paradoxical result is explicable in terms of mutual confounding of the respective genotype-phenotype relationships due to a negative correlation between causal mutations induced by their common gene genealogy. As would be predicted by our findings, a significant negative correlation became apparent in published genome-wide association studies between the OR of genetic variants associated with a particular disease and the prevalence of that disease.




Siegert, S., Wolf, A., Cooper, D. N., Krawczak, M., & Nothnagel, M. (2015). Mutations causing complex disease may under certain circumstances be protective in an epidemiological sense. PLoS ONE, 10(7).

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