There are many known examples of multiple semi-independent associations at individual loci; such associations might arise either because of true allelic heterogeneity or because of imperfect tagging of an unobserved causal variant. This phenomenon is of great importance in monogenic traits but has not yet been systematically investigated and quantified in complex-trait genome-wide association studies (GWASs). Here, we describe a multi-SNP association method that estimates the effect of loci harboring multiple association signals by using GWAS summary statistics. Applying the method to a large anthropometric GWAS meta-analysis (from the Genetic Investigation of Anthropometric Traits consortium study), we show that for height, body mass index (BMI), and waist-to-hip ratio (WHR), 3%, 2%, and 1%, respectively, of additional phenotypic variance can be explained on top of the previously reported 10% (height), 1.5% (BMI), and 1% (WHR). The method also permitted a substantial increase (by up to 50%) in the number of loci that replicate in a discovery-validation design. Specifically, we identified 74 loci at which the multi-SNP, a linear combination of SNPs, explains significantly more variance than does the best individual SNP. A detailed analysis of multi-SNPs shows that most of the additional variability explained is derived from SNPs that are not in linkage disequilibrium with the lead SNP, suggesting a major contribution of allelic heterogeneity to the missing heritability.
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