Increased burden of deleterious variants in essential genes in autism spectrum disorder

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a heterogeneous, highly heritable neurodevelopmental syndrome characterized by impaired social interaction, communication, and repetitive behavior. It is estimated that hundreds of genes contribute to ASD. We asked if genes with a strong effect on survival and fitness contribute to ASD risk. Human orthologs of genes with an essential role in pre- and postnatal development in the mouse [essential genes (EGs)] are enriched for disease genes and under strong purifying selection relative to human orthologs of mouse genes with a known nonlethal phenotype [nonessential genes (NEGs)]. This intolerance to deleterious mutations, commonly observed haploinsufficiency, and the importance of EGs in development suggest a possible cumulative effect of deleterious variants in EGs on complex neurodevelopmental disorders. With a comprehensive catalog of 3,915 mammalian EGs, we provide compelling evidence for a stronger contribution of EGs to ASD risk compared with NEGs. By examining the exonic de novo and inherited variants from 1,781 ASD quartet families, we show a significantly higher burden of damaging mutations in EGs in ASD probands compared with their non-ASD siblings. The analysis of EGs in the developing brain identified clusters of coexpressed EGs implicated in ASD. Finally, we suggest a high-priority list of 29 EGs with potential ASD risk as targets for future functional and behavioral studies. Overall, we show that large-scale studies of gene function in model organisms provide a powerful approach for prioritization of genes and pathogenic variants identified by sequencing studies of human disease."

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