Targeted expression profiling by RNA-Seq improves detection of cellular dynamics during pregnancy and identifies a role for T cells in term parturition

Development of maternal blood transcriptomic markers to monitor placental function and risk of obstetrical complications throughout pregnancy requires accurate quantification of gene expression.

PRB researchers benchmarked three state-of-the-art expression profiling techniques to assess in maternal circulation the expression of cell type-specific gene sets previously discovered by single-cell genomics studies of the placenta. The team compared Affymetrix Human Transcriptome Arrays, Illumina RNA-Seq, and sequencing-based targeted expression profiling (DriverMap™) to assess transcriptomic changes with gestational age and labor status at term, and tested 86 candidate genes by qRT-PCR.

DriverMap™ identified twice as many significant genes (q<0.1) than RNA-Seq and five times more than microarrays. The gap in the number of significant genes remained when testing only protein-coding genes detected by all platforms. qRT-PCR validation statistics (positive predictive value and area under the curve) were high and similar among platforms; yet dynamic ranges were higher for sequencing-based platforms than microarrays. DriverMap™ provided the strongest evidence for the association of B-cell and T-cell gene signatures with gestational age, while T-cell expression was increased with spontaneous labor at term according to all three platforms.

The team concluded that sequencing-based techniques are more suitable to quantify whole-blood gene expression compared to microarrays, as they have an expanded dynamic range and identify more true positives. Targeted expression profiling achieved higher coverage of protein-coding genes with fewer total sequenced reads, and it is especially suited to track cell type-specific signatures discovered in the placenta. The T-cell gene expression signature was increased in women who underwent spontaneous labor at term, mimicking immunological processes at the maternal-fetal interface and placenta.

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