GWAS and ExWAS of blood Mitochondrial DNA copy number identifies 71 loci and highlights a potential causal role in dementia

Background: Mitochondrial DNA copy number (mtDNA-CN) is an accessible blood-based measurement believed to capture underlying mitochondrial function. The specific biological processes underpinning its regulation, and whether those processes are causative for disease, is an area of active investigation.

Methods: We developed a novel method for array-based mtDNA-CN estimation suitable for biobank-scale studies, called ‘AutoMitoC’. We applied AutoMitoC to 395,781 UKBiobank study participants and performed genome and exome-wide association studies, identifying novel common and rare genetic determinants. Finally, we performed two-sample Mendelian Randomization to assess whether genetically low mtDNA-CN influenced select mitochondrial phenotypes.

Results: Overall, genetic analyses identified 71 loci for mtDNA-CN, which implicated several genes involved in rare mtDNA depletion disorders, dNTP metabolism, and the mitochondrial central dogma. Rare variant analysis identified SAMHD1 mutation carriers as having higher mtDNA-CN (beta=0.23 SDs; 95% CI, 0.18- 0.29; P=2.6×10-19), a potential therapeutic target for patients with mtDNA depletion disorders, but at increased risk of breast cancer (OR=1.91; 95% CI, 1.52-2.40; P=2.7×10-8). Finally, Mendelian randomization analyses suggest a causal effect of low mtDNA-CN on dementia risk (OR=1.94 per 1 SD decrease in mtDNA-CN; 95% CI, 1.55-2.32; P=7.5×10-4).

Conclusions: Altogether, our genetic findings indicate that mtDNA-CN is a complex biomarker reflecting specific mitochondrial processes related to mtDNA regulation, and that these processes are causally related to human diseases.

Funding: No funds supported this specific investigation. Awards and positions supporting authors include: Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) Frederick Banting and Charles Best Canada Graduate Scholarships Doctoral Award (MC, PM); CIHR Post-Doctoral Fellowship Award (RM); Wellcome Trust Grant number: 099313/B/12/A; Crasnow Travel Scholarship; Bongani Mayosi UCT-PHRI Scholarship 2019/2020 (TM); Wellcome Trust Health Research Board Irish Clinical Academic Training (ICAT) Programme Grant Number: 203930/B/16/Z (CJ); European Research Council COSIP Grant Number: 640580 (MO); E.J. Moran Campbell Internal Career Research Award (MP); CISCO Professorship in Integrated Health Systems and Canada Research Chair in Genetic and Molecular Epidemiology (GP).

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