Lethal variants in humans: lessons learned from a large molecular autopsy cohort.

Hanan E Shamseldin, Lama AlAbdi, Sateesh Maddirevula, Hessa S Alsaif, Fatema AlZahrani, Nour Ewida, Mais Hashem, Firdous Abdulwahab, Omar Abuyousef, Hiroyuki Kuwahara, Xin Gao, Molecular Autopsy Consortium, Fowzan S Alkuraya

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

11 Scopus citations


BackgroundMolecular autopsy refers to DNA-based identification of the cause of death. Despite recent attempts to broaden its scope, the term remains typically reserved to sudden unexplained death in young adults. In this study, we aim to showcase the utility of molecular autopsy in defining lethal variants in humans.MethodsWe describe our experience with a cohort of 481 cases in whom the cause of premature death was investigated using DNA from the index or relatives (molecular autopsy by proxy). Molecular autopsy tool was typically exome sequencing although some were investigated using targeted approaches in the earlier stages of the study; these include positional mapping, targeted gene sequencing, chromosomal microarray, and gene panels.ResultsThe study includes 449 cases from consanguineous families and 141 lacked family history (simplex). The age range was embryos to 18 years. A likely causal variant (pathogenic/likely pathogenic) was identified in 63.8% (307/481), a much higher yield compared to the general diagnostic yield (43%) from the same population. The predominance of recessive lethal alleles allowed us to implement molecular autopsy by proxy in 55 couples, and the yield was similarly high (63.6%). We also note the occurrence of biallelic lethal forms of typically non-lethal dominant disorders, sometimes representing a novel bona fide biallelic recessive disease trait. Forty-six disease genes with no OMIM phenotype were identified in the course of this study. The presented data support the candidacy of two other previously reported novel disease genes (FAAH2 and MSN). The focus on lethal phenotypes revealed many examples of interesting phenotypic expansion as well as remarkable variability in clinical presentation. Furthermore, important insights into population genetics and variant interpretation are highlighted based on the results.ConclusionsMolecular autopsy, broadly defined, proved to be a helpful clinical approach that provides unique insights into lethal variants and the clinical annotation of the human genome.
Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalGenome medicine
Issue number1
StatePublished - Oct 14 2021

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Genetics
  • Molecular Biology
  • Molecular Medicine
  • Genetics(clinical)


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