Candidate genetic modifiers of retinitis pigmentosa identified by exploiting natural variation in Drosophila

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Individuals carrying the same pathogenic mutation can present with a broad range of disease outcomes. While some of this variation arises from environmental factors, it is increasingly recognized that the background genetic variation of each individual can have a profound effect on the expressivity of a pathogenic mutation. In order to understand this background effect on disease-causing mutations, studies need to be performed across a wide range of backgrounds. Recent advancements in model organism biology allow us to test mutations across genetically diverse backgrounds and identify the genes that influence the expressivity of a mutation. In this study, we used the Drosophila Genetic Reference Panel, a collection of ∼200 wild-derived strains, to test the variability of the retinal phenotype of the Rh1G69D Drosophila model of retinitis pigmentosa (RP). We found that the Rh1G69D retinal phenotype is quite a variable quantitative phenotype. To identify the genes driving this extensive phenotypic variation, we performed a genome-wide association study. We identified 106 candidate genes, including 14 high-priority candidates. Functional testing by RNAi indicates that 10/13 top candidates tested influence the expressivity of Rh1G69D. The human orthologs of the candidate genes have not previously been implicated as RP modifiers and their functions are diverse, including roles in endoplasmic reticulum stress, apoptosis and retinal degeneration and development. This study demonstrates the utility of studying a pathogenic mutation across a wide range of genetic backgrounds. These candidate modifiers provide new avenues of inquiry that may reveal new RP disease mechanisms and therapies.

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