Methodological considerations in estimation of phenotype heritability using genome-wide SNP data, illustrated by an analysis of the heritability of height in a large sample of African ancestry adults

Fang Chen, Jing He, Jianqi Zhang, Gary K. Chen, Venetta Thomas, Christine B. Ambrosone, Elisa V. Bandera, Sonja I. Berndt, Leslie Bernstein, William J. Blot, Qiuyin Cai, John Carpten, Graham Casey, Stephen J. Chanock, Iona Cheng, Lisa Chu, Sandra L. Deming, W. Ryan Driver, Phyllis Goodman, Richard B. HayesAnselm J.M. Hennis, Ann W. Hsing, Jennifer J. Hu, Sue A. Ingles, Esther M. John, Rick A. Kittles, Suzanne Kolb, M. Cristina Leske, Robert C. Millikan, Kristine R. Monroe, Adam Murphy, Barbara Nemesure, Christine Neslund-Dudas, Sarah Nyante, Elaine A. Ostrander, Michael F. Press, Jorge L. Rodriguez-Gil, Ben A. Rybicki, Fredrick Schumacher, Janet L. Stanford, Lisa B. Signorello, Sara S. Strom, Victoria Stevens, David Van Den Berg, Zhaoming Wang, John S. Witte, Suh Yuh Wu, Yuko Yamamura, Wei Zheng, Regina G. Ziegler, Alexander H. Stram, Laurence N. Kolonel, Loïc Le Marchand, Brian E. Henderson, Christopher A. Haiman, Daniel O. Stram

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Height has an extremely polygenic pattern of inheritance. Genome-wide association studies (GWAS) have revealed hundreds of common variants that are associated with human height at genome-wide levels of significance. However, only a small fraction of phenotypic variation can be explained by the aggregate of these common variants. In a large study of African-American men and women (n = 14,419), we genotyped and analyzed 966,578 autosomal SNPs across the entire genome using a linear mixed model variance components approach implemented in the program GCTA (Yang et al Nat Genet 2010), and estimated an additive heritability of 44.7% (se: 3.7%) for this phenotype in a sample of evidently unrelated individuals. While this estimated value is similar to that given by Yang et al in their analyses, we remain concerned about two related issues: (1) whether in the complete absence of hidden relatedness, variance components methods have adequate power to estimate heritability when a very large number of SNPs are used in the analysis; and (2) whether estimation of heritability may be biased, in real studies, by low levels of residual hidden relatedness. We addressed the first question in a semi-analytic fashion by directly simulating the distribution of the score statistic for a test of zero heritability with and without low levels of relatedness. The second question was addressed by a very careful comparison of the behavior of estimated heritability for both observed (self-reported) height and simulated phenotypes compared to imputation R2 as a function of the number of SNPs used in the analysis. These simulations help to address the important question about whether today's GWAS SNPs will remain useful for imputing causal variants that are discovered using very large sample sizes in future studies of height, or whether the causal variants themselves will need to be genotyped de novo in order to build a prediction model that ultimately captures a large fraction of the variability of height, and by implication other complex phenotypes. Our overall conclusions are that when study sizes are quite large (5,000 or so) the additive heritability estimate for height is not apparently biased upwards using the linear mixed model; however there is evidence in our simulation that a very large number of causal variants (many thousands) each with very small effect on phenotypic variance will need to be discovered to fill the gap between the heritability explained by known versus unknown causal variants. We conclude that today's GWAS data will remain useful in the future for causal variant prediction, but that finding the causal variants that need to be predicted may be extremely laborious.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere0131106
JournalPloS one
Issue number6
StatePublished - Jun 30 2015

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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