Sequence polymorphisms in a 58-kilobase (kb) interval on chromosome 9p21 confer a markedly increased risk of coronary artery disease (CAD), the leading cause of death worldwide. The variants have a substantial effect on the epidemiology of CAD and other life-threatening vascular conditions because nearly one-quarter of Caucasians are homozygous for risk alleles. However, the risk interval is devoid of protein-coding genes and the mechanism linking the region to CAD risk has remained enigmatic. Here we show that deletion of the orthologous 70-kb non-coding interval on mouse chromosome 4 affects cardiac expression of neighbouring genes, as well as proliferation properties of vascular cells. Chr4 Δ70kb/Δ70kb mice are viable, but show increased mortality both during development and as adults. Cardiac expression of two genes near the non-coding interval, Cdkn2a and Cdkn2b, is severely reduced in chr4 Δ70kb/Δ70kb mice, indicating that distant-acting gene regulatory functions are located in the non-coding CAD risk interval. Allele-specific expression of Cdkn2b transcripts in heterozygous mice showed that the deletion affects expression through a cis-acting mechanism. Primary cultures of chr4 Δ70kb/ Δ70kb aortic smooth muscle cells exhibited excessive proliferation and diminished senescence, a cellular phenotype consistent with accelerated CAD pathogenesis. Taken together, our results provide direct evidence that the CAD risk interval has a pivotal role in regulation of cardiac Cdkn2a/b expression, and suggest that this region affects CAD progression by altering the dynamics of vascular cell proliferation.
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