Research Article| Volume 75, ISSUE 3, P514-523, September 2021

Disease-specific eQTL screening reveals an anti-fibrotic effect of AGXT2 in non-alcoholic fatty liver disease

Published:April 20, 2021DOI:


      • Our ‘response-eQTL' approach aimed to discover novel SNP-gene pairs that only function in NAFLD.
      • NAFLD-specific repression of AGXT2 was prominent in rs2291702:CC carriers.
      • Lower AGXT2 expression was associated with worse histological and metabolic features in rs2291702:CC carriers.
      • The reduction of AGXT2 mimicked human NAFLD features in mice, whereas overexpression rescued them.
      • The reduced AGXT2 caused increased cell death due to ER stress activation in HepG2 cells.

      Background & Aims

      Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) poses an increasing clinical burden. Genome-wide association studies have revealed a limited contribution of genomic variants to the disease, requiring alternative but robust approaches to identify disease-associated variants and genes. We carried out a disease-specific expression quantitative trait loci (eQTL) screen to identify novel genetic factors that specifically act on NAFLD progression on the basis of genotype.


      We recruited 125 Korean patients (83 with biopsy-proven NAFLD and 42 without NAFLD) and performed eQTL analyses using 21,272 transcripts and 3,234,941 genotyped and imputed single nucleotide polymorphisms. We then selected eQTLs that were detected only in the NAFLD group, but not in the control group (i.e., NAFLD-eQTLs). An additional cohort of 162 Korean individuals with NAFLD was used for replication. The function of the selected eQTL toward NAFLD development was validated using HepG2, primary hepatocytes and NAFLD mouse models.


      The NAFLD-specific eQTL screening yielded 242 loci. Among them, AGXT2, encoding alanine-glyoxylate aminotransferase 2, displayed decreased expression in patients with NAFLD homozygous for the non-reference allele of rs2291702, compared to no-NAFLD individuals with the same genotype (p = 4.79 × 10-6). This change was replicated in an additional 162 individuals, yielding a combined p value of 8.05 × 10-8 from a total of 245 patients with NAFLD and 42 controls. Knockdown of AGXT2 induced palmitate-overloaded hepatocyte death by increasing endoplasmic reticulum stress, and exacerbated NAFLD diet-induced liver fibrosis in mice, while overexpression of AGXT2 attenuated liver fibrosis and steatosis.


      We identified a new molecular role for AGXT2 in NAFLD. Our overall approach will serve as an efficient tool for uncovering novel genetic factors that contribute to liver steatosis and fibrosis in patients with NAFLD.

      Lay summary

      Elucidating causal genes for non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) has been challenging due to limited tissue availability and the polygenic nature of the disease. Using liver and blood samples from 125 Korean individuals (83 with NAFLD and 42 without NAFLD), we devised a new analytic method to identify causal genes. Among the candidates, we found that AGXT2-rs2291702 protects against liver fibrosis in a genotype-dependent manner with the potential for therapeutic interventions. Our approach enables the discovery of causal genes that act on the basis of genotype.

      Graphical abstract


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