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ISSN: 2155-9864
Journal of Blood Disorders & Transfusion
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RHD Zygosity Determination from Whole Genome Sequencing Data

John Baronas1, Connie M Westhoff2, Sunitha Vege2, Helen Mah1, Maria Aguad1, Robin Smeland-Wagman1, Richard M Kaufman3,6, Heidi L Rehm1,3,4,5, Leslie E Silberstein6, Robert C Green3,5,7 and William J Lane1,3*

1Department of Pathology, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston, MA, USA

2New York Blood Center, New York, USA

3Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA, USA

4Laboratory for Molecular Medicine, Partners Healthcare Personalized Medicine, Boston, MA, USA

5Partners Healthcare Personalized Medicine, Boston, MA, USA

6Department of Pathology, Division of Transfusion Medicine, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston, MA, USA

7Department of Medicine, Division of Genetics, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston, MA, USA

*Corresponding Author:
William J Lane
Department of Pathology
Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School
Amory Lab Building 3rd Floor, Rm 3-117
75 Francis Street, Boston, MA 02115, USA
Tel: 617-732-5469
Email: [email protected]

Received date: July 27, 2016; Accepted date: September 15, 2016; Published date: September 19, 2016

Citation: Baronas J, Westhoff CM, Vege S, Mah H, Aguad M, et al. (2016) RHD Zygosity Determination from Whole Genome Sequencing Data. J Blood Disord Transfus 7:365. doi:10.4172/2155-9864.1000365

Copyright: © 2016 Baronas J, et al. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.

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In the Rh blood group system, the RHD gene is bordered by two homologous DNA sequences called the upstream and downstream Rhesus boxes. The most common cause of the D− phenotype in people of European descent is a deletion of the RHD gene region, which results in a hybrid combination of the two Rhesus boxes. PCRbased testing can detect the presence or absence of the hybrid box to determine RHD zygosity. PCR hybrid box testing on fathers can stratify risk for haemolytic disease of the fetus and new born in mothers with anti-D antibodies. Red blood cells and genomic DNA were isolated from 37 individuals of European descent undergoing whole genome sequencing as part of the MedSeq Project. A whole genome sequence-based RHD sequence read depth analysis was used to determine RHD zygosity (homozygous, hemizygous, or null states) with 100% agreement (n=37) when compared to conventional RhD serology and PCR-based hybrid box assay.


RHD; RHD zygosity; Red blood cell; Blood group; Genomics; Whole genome sequencing; Next generation sequencing


The Rh blood group system consists of the two homologous genes RHD and RHCE. The RHD gene controls the expression of the RHD protein, which contains numerous extracellular epitopes comprising the D antigen [1]. Individuals who lack the RHD protein and hence the D antigen can form anti-D antibodies. The RHD gene is surrounded by two homologous 9,000 bp regions called the Rhesus Boxes, which are 4,900 bp upstream and 104 bp downstream of RHD [2]. The most common cause of the D− phenotype in persons of European descent is deletion of the RHD gene due to a recombination event between of the upstream and downstream Rhesus boxes. This recombination results in a hybrid box sequence comprised of the 5’ part of the upstream box and the 3’ part of the downstream box [2].

The presence or absence of the hybrid box can be detected using DNA PCR methods. The hybrid box is present in individuals who are RHD hemizygous (e.g. deletion of one copy of the RHD gene) and RHD null (e.g. D− due to deletion of both copies of the RHD gene). Several different PCR-based assays are currently used to detect the hybrid box. Most of these methods depend on small differences between sequences of the 5’ upstream region and 3’ downstream region of the Rhesus boxes. However, the hybrid box PCR assay is not always reliable and requires that the hybrid box region does not subsequently mutate or recombine again. This assay can be falsely negative due to ethnic variations in the hybrid box sequences, or falsely positive due to other gene conversion events involving only one of the Rhesus boxes without RHD deletion (e.g. DAU-1; DIII type 4) [3].

Because of the potentially severe adverse consequences associated with hemolytic disease of the fetus and newborn (HDFN), it is important to be able to accurately determine the presence or absence of the RHD gene in pregnancies in which a D− woman has formed anti-D antibodies. If the father is D+, serologic testing cannot distinguish whether he is homozygous (two copies of the RHD gene), or hemizygous (only one copy). Children of RHD homozygous fathers have a 100% chance of being D+, but only 50% if the father is RHD hemizygous [2]. Therefore, RHD zygosity determination by DNA PCR testing of the father to predict probability of D+ fetus can help stratify the HDFN risk in D- mothers with anti-D antibodies [4].

The application of next generation sequencing (NGS) to clinical testing has enabled the field of precision medicine [5-8]. We recently demonstrated the feasibility of comprehensively predicting all molecularly understood RBC antigens using NGS based Whole Genome Sequencing (WGS) data [9] as part of the MedSeq Project [10]. It is well established that gene copy number can be calculated from WGS data using many different methods such as split read detection and read depth analysis [11]. However, we are unaware of any previously published studies describing the use of WGS analyses for determining RHD zygosity. Two main approaches split read detection and read depth analysis are used for zygosity determination by WGS. In split read detection, copy number changes are detected by looking for sequence reads in which one of the paired-end reads does not align to the nearby reference genome sequence, indicating the presence of a DNA recombination breakpoint. In read depth analysis, the number of sequences that align to different regions in the reference genome are compared, looking for regions with increases or decreases of aligned reads, which can reflect changes in copy number. Here, we report that although it was not possible to find Rhesus box split reads in WGS of D− individuals, it was possible to use read depth analysis from WGS data to correctly determine RHD homozygous, hemizygous, and null states.

Materials and Methods

RBC serology

Traditional RBC serologic antigen testing was performed according to standard blood banking practices in the Brigham and Women’s Hospital Blood Bank [9]. Peripheral blood from participants in the MedSeq study [10] was collected in EDTA tubes, and RBCs were isolated by centrifugation. A commercially available serologic monoclonal anti-D typing reagent [Bio-Rad, Hercules, CA], was used to type for the D antigen. Fifty microliter samples of washed RBCs were incubated with the typing reagent, centrifuged, and visually examined for agglutination.

Hybrid box assay

The hybrid box assay was performed according to previously published methods [12]. Briefly, allele-specific PCR was carried out using primers designed to amplify a product of 1,507 bp within the hybrid box sequence. PCR products were visualized by agarose gel electrophoresis with ethidium bromide staining.

Whole genome sequencing

WGS was performed by the CLIA-certified, CAP-accredited Illumina Clinical Services Laboratory (San Diego, CA) using pairedend 100 base pair (bp) reads on the Illumina HiSeq next generation sequencing (NGS) platform and sequenced to at least 30x mean coverage [13]. The genomic data from the MedSeq Project has been submitted to the dbGaP website. Sequence read data was aligned to the human reference sequence (GRCh37/hg19) using Burrows-Wheeler Aligner 0.6.1-r104 [14].

Whole Genome Sequence Based Rh Copy Number Determination

The Integrative Genomics Viewer [15] was used to visually inspect the WGS alignments for the Rhesus box regions expected to contain the hybrid box split read products and to visualize the read depth of coverage across the entire RHD gene and surrounding Rhesus boxes. Sequencing coverage values were extracted from the alignment file using BED Tools v2.17.0 [16]. Based on the breakpoint regions, the extracted coverage values were put into three bins upstream +10,000 bp upstream (chr1:25,580,018-25,593,111), RHD deletion region (chr1:25,593,112-25,660,343), and downstream (chr1:25,660,344-25,673,439). The average coverage value was then calculated for each bin followed by a calculation of the RHD copy number using:


On this scale, two copies of RHD should result in a value of 2(1.6-2.5), hemizygous a value of 1(0.6-1.5), and RHD null as a value of 0(0-0.5).


Study overview

With approval from the Partners HealthCare Human Research Committee (IRB), samples for RBC and genomic DNA isolation were collected from 37 individuals of European descent who had WGS through participation in the MedSeq Project [10]. The WGS results were analyzed to see if it was possible to determine RHD zygosity using only the WGS data. Serologic D typing followed by PCR-based hybrid box assays were used to confirm the RHD zygosity as either homozygous, hemizygous, or null.

The serologic testing results were known at the time of WGS analysis for the first 15 cases (14 D+ and 1 D−), follow by blinded WGS analysis for the last 22 cases (12 D+ and 10 D−). The PCR hybrid box assay was performed after WGS analysis and was thus blinded in all cases. In all cases, the serologic testing, PCR hybrid box assay, and WGS analysis were performed by different individuals.

Hybrid box split read detection

As shown in Figure 1, the human reference genome coordinates of the Rhesus boxes and the hybrid box breakpoint were manually determined using the Integrative Genomics Viewer to identify the published box sequences (upstream box: AJ252311 and downstream box: AJ252312) [2].


Figure 1: Rh Blood Group Gene Organization. The RHD and RHCE genes are oriented toward each other with a small interviewing region that contains SMP1 gene. The RHD gene is surrounded by two highly homologous Rhesus box regions. The human reference genome (GRCh37/hg19) coordinates are shown for the Rhesus box regions as well as the ~900 bp region of 100% sequence identity in which the hybrid box break point occurred during RHD deletion.

This approach revealed a loss of sequence read depth of coverage right after the upstream Rhesus box and before the downstream Rhesus box in a D− individual (Figures 2A and 2B). However, there were no hybrid box split reads at either the upstream or the downstream breakpoint locations. This finding was later confirmed in three more D− individuals.


Figure 2: RHD and Rhesus Box WGS Sequence Read Depth of Coverage. Examples of WGS read depth of coverage screen shots from Integrated Genomics Viewer (IGV). (A) RHD gene and the surrounding Rhesus boxes. These regions are drawn to scale with the plots below. (B) D- (RHD null) individual with complete loss of coverage across the RHD gene. (C) D+ (RHD hemizygous) individual partial loss of coverage across the RHD gene. (D) D+ (RHD homozygous) individual with no loss of coverage across the RHD gene. To aid in comparison, the horizontal blue lines represent the average 30x coverage across this region as found in the RHD homozygous individual.

WGS based read depth coverage RHD zygosity determination

Since hybrid box split reads could not be directly found, sequence read depth of coverage analysis was performed. In the first 15 cases, it was found that D+ individuals displayed two distinct patterns of coverage over RHD and its upstream and downstream regions:

1. Those with noticeable but not complete absence in coverage (~15x) over RHD (Figure 2C) and,

2. Those with no change in coverage (~30x) over RHD (Figure 2D). Conventional hybrid box PCR confirmed that the difference between the two D+ coverage patterns reflected RHD copy number changes due to hemizygosity (Figure 2C) or homozygosity (Figure 2D). To more rigorously evaluate the above coverage patterns, an average sequence depth of coverage was calculated for RHD and each Rhesus box region for all 37 individuals This revealed three patterns of coverage that were used to visually estimate RHD zygosity (Figure 3):


Figure 3: Calculation of RHD and Rhesus Box Coverage. The average sequence coverage values are shown for the Rhesus boxes (along with 10,000 bp extension away from RHD ) and the RHD gene deletion region. The results are in three groups based on the RHD zygosity as determined by WGS analysis and confirmed by a combination of serology and PCR hybrid box assay. Hemizygous individuals seem to have lower sequencing depth of coverage in the RHD gene region and there is no coverage in RHD null individuals.

1. no RHD coverage (null),

2. partial loss of RHD coverage (hemizygous),

3. no change in RHD coverage (homozygous).

In order to automate the WGS-based RHD zygosity determination, the above read depth differences were used as the basis for an RHD copy number calculation that was performed on the 37 individuals (Figure 4). There was 100% agreement between the WSG read depthbased RHD copy number determination approach and the conventional RHD serology and hybrid box PCR.


Figure 4: RHD Copy Number using WGS Read Depth of Coverage. The RHD copy number was calculated using the WGS data and normalized to the gene copy number such that the calculation is homozygous (copy number 1.6–2.5), hemizygous (copy number 0.6-1.5), 1, and null (copy number 0–0.5). The results are in three groups based on the RHD zygosity as determined WGS analysis and confirmed by a combination of serology and PCR hybrid box assay. Each dot represents a single patient with a line representing the mean and with bars showing the 95% confidence interval. There was statistical significance between the three groups with no outliers or overlapping copy number values.


In 37 individuals, WGS-based hybrid box split read and sequence read depth of coverage analysis were evaluated for their ability to determine RHD zygosity when compared to conventional serologic typing and hybrid Rhesus box PCR results.

We found that hybrid box split read analysis using WGS data failed to reliably allow zygosity determination of the RHD gene. This was not surprising given the known high degree of sequence homology between the Rhesus boxes. A consequence of this homology, is that with split read analysis it is impossible to precisely determine the exact breakpoint of the hybrid box; at best, this approach narrows the breakpoint location to within an approximately 900 bp region of 100% sequence identity. WGS data is comprised of short read (100 bp pairedend read) sequences. Thus, it is not possible to find a single hybrid sequence read with sequences specific to the upstream and downstream Rhesus boxes such a read would need to span the entire ~900 bp region. Conventional hybrid box PCR assays work because they can detect the presence of recombined upstream and downstream specific hybrid box sequences using PCR primers separated by 1,000-9,000 bp [4,12]. In the future, it might be possible to perform WGS-based detection of hybrid box split read sequences using 4th generation sequencing technologies that produce sequence reads that are several kilobases long [17].

However, even with short read sequences, sequence read depth of coverage evaluation was 100% accurate (n=37), and therefore provides a simple and easy method to determine RHD zygosity using WGS data. Conventional, hybrid box PCR based detection assays can be unreliable in individuals with variant Rhesus box sequences, most notably in those of African descent, but problems have also been reported in those of European descent [4]. In such situations, a more technically demanding hybrid box assay or quantitative RHD amplification compared to amplification of a control gene must currently be performed to properly determine zygosity [3,18]. Since the WGS sequence read depth of coverage approach is not based on detecting the hybrid box sequence, we speculate that it would still work in individuals with variant Rhesus boxes. In addition, the same WGS data should also be usable to detect other D− molecular mechanisms such as the RHD pseudogene in individuals of African descent. In summary, WGS based RHD evaluation has the potential to serve as a universal RHD zygosity determination assay in all ethnic groups.

In the future, it is likely that many individuals will have existing WGS as part of precision medicine initiatives. The RHD copy number calculation could routinely be used at low cost in anyone undergoing WGS. As such, a father’s RHD zygosity would already be available to aid in the risk stratification and counseling for HDFN in sensitized D− mothers.

Members of the MedSeq Project

Members of the MedSeq Project are as follows: David W. Bates, MD, Alexis D. Carere, MA, MS, Allison Cirino, MS, Lauren Connor, Kurt D. Christensen, MPH, PhD, Jake Duggan, Robert C. Green, MD, MPH, Carolyn Y. Ho, MD, Lily Hoffman-Andrews, Joel B. Krier, MD, William J. Lane, MD, PhD, Denise M. Lautenbach, MS, Lisa Lehmann, MD, PhD, MSc, Christina Liu, Calum A. MacRae, MD, PhD, Rachel Miller, MA, Cynthia C. Morton, PhD, Christine E. Seidman, MD, Shamil Sunyaev, PhD, Jason L. Vassy, MD, MPH, SM, Rebecca Walsh, Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School; Sandy Aronson, ALM, MA, Ozge Ceyhan-Birsoy, PhD, Siva Gowrisankar, Ph.D., Matthew S. Lebo, PhD, Ignat Leschiner, PhD, Kalotina Machini, PhD, MS, Heather M. McLaughlin, PhD, Danielle R. Metterville, MS, Heidi L. Rehm, PhD, Partners Center for Personalized Genetic Medicine; Jennifer Blumenthal-Barby, PhD, Lindsay Zausmer Feuerman, MPH, Amy L. McGuire, JD, PhD, Ali Noorbaksh Jill Oliver Robinson, MA, Melody J. Slashinski, MPH, PhD, Julia Wycliff, Baylor College of Medicine, Center for Medical Ethics and Health Policy; Philip Lupo, PhD, MPH, Baylor College of Medicine, Department of Pediatrics; Stewart C. Alexander, PhD, Kelly Davis, Peter A. Ubel, MD, Duke University; Peter Kraft, PhD, Harvard School of Public Health; J. Scott Roberts, PhD, University of Michigan; Judy E. Garber, MD, MPH, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute; Tina Hambuch, PhD, Illumina, Inc.; Michael F. Murray, MD, Geisinger Health System; Isaac Kohane, MD, PhD, Sek Won Kong, MD, Boston Children’s Hospital.


The authors thank the staff and participants of the MedSeq Project for their important contributions. The MedSeq Project is supported by the National Human Genome Research Institute HG006500. Drs. Green and Rehm are also supported by HD077671, HG006834 and HG008685. Additional funding was provided by the Brigham and Women’s Hospital Pathology Department Stanley L. Robbins M.D.Memorial Research Fund Award.


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