Characterization of a COPD-Associated NPNT Functional Splicing Genetic Variant in Human Lung Tissue via Long-Read Sequencing

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a leading cause of death worldwide. Genome-wide association studies (GWAS) have identified over 80 loci that are associated with COPD and emphysema, however for most of these loci the causal variant and gene are unknown.

Here, we utilize lung splice quantitative trait loci (sQTL) data from the Genotype-Tissue Expression project (GTEx) and short read sequencing data from the Lung Tissue Research Consortium (LTRC) to characterize a locus in nephronectin (NPNT) associated with COPD case-control status and lung function. We found that the rs34712979 variant is associated with alternative splice junction use in NPNT, specifically for the junction connecting the 2nd and 4th exons (chr4:105898001-105927336) (p=4.02×10−38). This association colocalized with GWAS data for COPD and lung spirometry measures with a posterior probability of 94%, indicating that the same causal genetic variants in NPNT underlie the associations with COPD risk, spirometric measures of lung function, and splicing. Investigation of NPNT short read sequencing revealed that rs34712979 creates a cryptic splice acceptor site which results in the inclusion of a 3 nucleotide exon extension, coding for a serine residue near the N-terminus of the protein.

Using Oxford Nanopore Technologies (ONT) long read sequencing we identified 13 NPNT isoforms, 6 of which are predicted to be protein coding. Two of these are full length isoforms which differ only in the 3 nucleotide exon extension whose occurrence differs by genotype.

Overall, our data indicate that rs34712979 modulates COPD risk and lung function by creating a novel splice acceptor which results in the inclusion of a 3 nucelotide sequence coding for a serine in the nephronectin protein sequence. Our findings implicate NPNT splicing in contributing to COPD risk, and identify a novel serine insertion in the nephronectin protein that warrants further study.

Authors: Aabida Saferali, Zhonghui Xu, Gloria M. Sheynkman, Craig P. Hersh, Michael H. Cho, Edwin K. Silverman, Alain Laederach, Christopher Vollmers, Peter J. Castaldi