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1.  Genome-Wide DNA Methylation Analysis of Human Pancreatic Islets from Type 2 Diabetic and Non-Diabetic Donors Identifies Candidate Genes That Influence Insulin Secretion 
PLoS Genetics  2014;10(3):e1004160.
Impaired insulin secretion is a hallmark of type 2 diabetes (T2D). Epigenetics may affect disease susceptibility. To describe the human methylome in pancreatic islets and determine the epigenetic basis of T2D, we analyzed DNA methylation of 479,927 CpG sites and the transcriptome in pancreatic islets from T2D and non-diabetic donors. We provide a detailed map of the global DNA methylation pattern in human islets, β- and α-cells. Genomic regions close to the transcription start site showed low degrees of methylation and regions further away from the transcription start site such as the gene body, 3′UTR and intergenic regions showed a higher degree of methylation. While CpG islands were hypomethylated, the surrounding 2 kb shores showed an intermediate degree of methylation, whereas regions further away (shelves and open sea) were hypermethylated in human islets, β- and α-cells. We identified 1,649 CpG sites and 853 genes, including TCF7L2, FTO and KCNQ1, with differential DNA methylation in T2D islets after correction for multiple testing. The majority of the differentially methylated CpG sites had an intermediate degree of methylation and were underrepresented in CpG islands (∼7%) and overrepresented in the open sea (∼60%). 102 of the differentially methylated genes, including CDKN1A, PDE7B, SEPT9 and EXOC3L2, were differentially expressed in T2D islets. Methylation of CDKN1A and PDE7B promoters in vitro suppressed their transcriptional activity. Functional analyses demonstrated that identified candidate genes affect pancreatic β- and α-cells as Exoc3l silencing reduced exocytosis and overexpression of Cdkn1a, Pde7b and Sept9 perturbed insulin and glucagon secretion in clonal β- and α-cells, respectively. Together, our data can serve as a reference methylome in human islets. We provide new target genes with altered DNA methylation and expression in human T2D islets that contribute to perturbed insulin and glucagon secretion. These results highlight the importance of epigenetics in the pathogenesis of T2D.
Author Summary
Epigenetic modifications such as DNA methylation are implicated in the development of human disease. However, genome-wide epigenetic analyses in patients with type 2 diabetes (T2D) remain scarce. In this study we aimed to unravel the epigenetic basis of T2D by analyzing DNA methylation of 479,927 CpG sites in human pancreatic islets from T2D and non-diabetic donors. We identified 1,649 CpG sites and 853 genes with differential DNA methylation (fold change 6–59%) in T2D islets. These include reported diabetes loci, such as TCF7L2, FTO and KCNQ1. Furthermore, we found 102 genes that showed both differential DNA methylation and gene expression in T2D islets, including CDKN1A, PDE7B, SEPT9 and EXOC3L2. Finally, we provide functional proof that identified candidate genes directly affect insulin secretion and exocytosis in pancreatic β-cells as well as glucagon secretion in α-cells. Overall, this study provides a detailed map of the methylome in human pancreatic islets and demonstrates that altered DNA methylation in human islets contributes to perturbed hormone secretion and the pathogenesis of T2D.
PMCID: PMC3945174  PMID: 24603685
2.  DNA Methylation Analysis of Chromosome 21 Gene Promoters at Single Base Pair and Single Allele Resolution 
PLoS Genetics  2009;5(3):e1000438.
Differential DNA methylation is an essential epigenetic signal for gene regulation, development, and disease processes. We mapped DNA methylation patterns of 190 gene promoter regions on chromosome 21 using bisulfite conversion and subclone sequencing in five human cell types. A total of 28,626 subclones were sequenced at high accuracy using (long-read) Sanger sequencing resulting in the measurement of the DNA methylation state of 580427 CpG sites. Our results show that average DNA methylation levels are distributed bimodally with enrichment of highly methylated and unmethylated sequences, both for amplicons and individual subclones, which represent single alleles from individual cells. Within CpG-rich sequences, DNA methylation was found to be anti-correlated with CpG dinucleotide density and GC content, and methylated CpGs are more likely to be flanked by AT-rich sequences. We observed over-representation of CpG sites in distances of 9, 18, and 27 bps in highly methylated amplicons. However, DNA sequence alone is not sufficient to predict an amplicon's DNA methylation status, since 43% of all amplicons are differentially methylated between the cell types studied here. DNA methylation in promoter regions is strongly correlated with the absence of gene expression and low levels of activating epigenetic marks like H3K4 methylation and H3K9 and K14 acetylation. Utilizing the single base pair and single allele resolution of our data, we found that i) amplicons from different parts of a CpG island frequently differ in their DNA methylation level, ii) methylation levels of individual cells in one tissue are very similar, and iii) methylation patterns follow a relaxed site-specific distribution. Furthermore, iv) we identified three cases of allele-specific DNA methylation on chromosome 21. Our data shed new light on the nature of methylation patterns in human cells, the sequence dependence of DNA methylation, and its function as epigenetic signal in gene regulation. Further, we illustrate genotype–epigenotype interactions by showing novel examples of allele-specific methylation.
Author Summary
Epigenetics is defined as the inheritance of changes in gene function without changing the DNA sequence. Epigenetic signals comprise methylation of cytosine bases of the DNA and chemical modifications of the histone proteins. DNA methylation plays important roles in development and disease processes. To investigate the biological role of DNA methylation, we analyzed DNA methylation patterns of 190 gene promoter regions on chromosome 21 in five human cell types. Our results show that average DNA methylation levels are distributed bimodally with enrichment of highly methylated and unmethylated sequences, indicating that DNA methylation acts in a switch-like manner. Consistent with the well-established role of DNA methylation in gene silencing, we found DNA methylation in promoter regions strongly correlated with absence of gene expression and low levels of additional activating epigenetic marks. Although methylation levels of individual cells in one tissue are very similar, we observed differences in DNA methylation when comparing different cell types in 43% of all regions analyzed. This finding is in agreement with a role of DNA methylation in cellular development. We identified three cases of genes that are differentially methylated in both alleles that illustrate the tight interplay of genetic and epigenetic processes.
PMCID: PMC2653639  PMID: 19325872
3.  Genome-Wide Associations between Genetic and Epigenetic Variation Influence mRNA Expression and Insulin Secretion in Human Pancreatic Islets 
PLoS Genetics  2014;10(11):e1004735.
Genetic and epigenetic mechanisms may interact and together affect biological processes and disease development. However, most previous studies have investigated genetic and epigenetic mechanisms independently, and studies examining their interactions throughout the human genome are lacking. To identify genetic loci that interact with the epigenome, we performed the first genome-wide DNA methylation quantitative trait locus (mQTL) analysis in human pancreatic islets. We related 574,553 single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) with genome-wide DNA methylation data of 468,787 CpG sites targeting 99% of RefSeq genes in islets from 89 donors. We identified 67,438 SNP-CpG pairs in cis, corresponding to 36,783 SNPs (6.4% of tested SNPs) and 11,735 CpG sites (2.5% of tested CpGs), and 2,562 significant SNP-CpG pairs in trans, corresponding to 1,465 SNPs (0.3% of tested SNPs) and 383 CpG sites (0.08% of tested CpGs), showing significant associations after correction for multiple testing. These include reported diabetes loci, e.g. ADCY5, KCNJ11, HLA-DQA1, INS, PDX1 and GRB10. CpGs of significant cis-mQTLs were overrepresented in the gene body and outside of CpG islands. Follow-up analyses further identified mQTLs associated with gene expression and insulin secretion in human islets. Causal inference test (CIT) identified SNP-CpG pairs where DNA methylation in human islets is the potential mediator of the genetic association with gene expression or insulin secretion. Functional analyses further demonstrated that identified candidate genes (GPX7, GSTT1 and SNX19) directly affect key biological processes such as proliferation and apoptosis in pancreatic β-cells. Finally, we found direct correlations between DNA methylation of 22,773 (4.9%) CpGs with mRNA expression of 4,876 genes, where 90% of the correlations were negative when CpGs were located in the region surrounding transcription start site. Our study demonstrates for the first time how genome-wide genetic and epigenetic variation interacts to influence gene expression, islet function and potential diabetes risk in humans.
Author Summary
Inter-individual variation in genetics and epigenetics affects biological processes and disease susceptibility. However, most studies have investigated genetic and epigenetic mechanisms independently and to uncover novel mechanisms affecting disease susceptibility there is a highlighted need to study interactions between these factors on a genome-wide scale. To identify novel loci affecting islet function and potentially diabetes, we performed the first genome-wide methylation quantitative trait locus (mQTL) analysis in human pancreatic islets including DNA methylation of 468,787 CpG sites located throughout the genome. Our results showed that DNA methylation of 11,735 CpGs in 4,504 unique genes is regulated by genetic factors located in cis (67,438 SNP-CpG pairs). Furthermore, significant mQTLs cover previously reported diabetes loci including KCNJ11, INS, HLA, PDX1 and GRB10. We also found mQTLs associated with gene expression and insulin secretion in human islets. By performing causality inference tests (CIT), we identified CpGs where DNA methylation potentially mediates the genetic impact on gene expression and insulin secretion. Our functional follow-up experiments further demonstrated that identified mQTLs/genes (GPX7, GSTT1 and SNX19) directly affect pancreatic β-cell function. Together, our study provides a detailed map of genome-wide associations between genetic and epigenetic variation, which affect gene expression and insulin secretion in human pancreatic islets.
PMCID: PMC4222689  PMID: 25375650
4.  Analysis of DNA Methylation in a Three-Generation Family Reveals Widespread Genetic Influence on Epigenetic Regulation 
PLoS Genetics  2011;7(8):e1002228.
The methylation of cytosines in CpG dinucleotides is essential for cellular differentiation and the progression of many cancers, and it plays an important role in gametic imprinting. To assess variation and inheritance of genome-wide patterns of DNA methylation simultaneously in humans, we applied reduced representation bisulfite sequencing (RRBS) to somatic DNA from six members of a three-generation family. We observed that 8.1% of heterozygous SNPs are associated with differential methylation in cis, which provides a robust signature for Mendelian transmission and relatedness. The vast majority of differential methylation between homologous chromosomes (>92%) occurs on a particular haplotype as opposed to being associated with the gender of the parent of origin, indicating that genotype affects DNA methylation of far more loci than does gametic imprinting. We found that 75% of genotype-dependent differential methylation events in the family are also seen in unrelated individuals and that overall genotype can explain 80% of the variation in DNA methylation. These events are under-represented in CpG islands, enriched in intergenic regions, and located in regions of low evolutionary conservation. Even though they are generally not in functionally constrained regions, 22% (twice as many as expected by chance) of genes harboring genotype-dependent DNA methylation exhibited allele-specific gene expression as measured by RNA-seq of a lymphoblastoid cell line, indicating that some of these events are associated with gene expression differences. Overall, our results demonstrate that the influence of genotype on patterns of DNA methylation is widespread in the genome and greatly exceeds the influence of imprinting on genome-wide methylation patterns.
Author Summary
DNA methylation is a dynamic epigenetic mark that is essential for mammalian organismal development. DNA methylation levels can be influenced by environment, a chromosome's parental origin, and genome sequence. In this study, we evaluated the impact that DNA sequence has on DNA methylation by analyzing methylation levels in a three-generation family as well as unrelated individuals. By following DNA methylation patterns through the family along with nearby SNPs, we found that allelic differences between chromosomes play a much larger role in determining DNA methylation than the parental origin of the chromosome, indicating that DNA sequence has a larger impact on DNA methylation than gametic imprinting. We also found that allelic differences in DNA methylation found in the family can also be observed in unrelated individuals. In fact, the majority of variation in DNA methylation can be explained by genotype. Our results emphasize the importance of genome sequence in setting patterns of DNA methylation and indicate that genotype will need to be taken into account when assessing DNA methylation in the context of disease.
PMCID: PMC3154961  PMID: 21852959
5.  Season of Conception in Rural Gambia Affects DNA Methylation at Putative Human Metastable Epialleles 
PLoS Genetics  2010;6(12):e1001252.
Throughout most of the mammalian genome, genetically regulated developmental programming establishes diverse yet predictable epigenetic states across differentiated cells and tissues. At metastable epialleles (MEs), conversely, epigenotype is established stochastically in the early embryo then maintained in differentiated lineages, resulting in dramatic and systemic interindividual variation in epigenetic regulation. In the mouse, maternal nutrition affects this process, with permanent phenotypic consequences for the offspring. MEs have not previously been identified in humans. Here, using an innovative 2-tissue parallel epigenomic screen, we identified putative MEs in the human genome. In autopsy samples, we showed that DNA methylation at these loci is highly correlated across tissues representing all 3 embryonic germ layer lineages. Monozygotic twin pairs exhibited substantial discordance in DNA methylation at these loci, suggesting that their epigenetic state is established stochastically. We then tested for persistent epigenetic effects of periconceptional nutrition in rural Gambians, who experience dramatic seasonal fluctuations in nutritional status. DNA methylation at MEs was elevated in individuals conceived during the nutritionally challenged rainy season, providing the first evidence of a permanent, systemic effect of periconceptional environment on human epigenotype. At MEs, epigenetic regulation in internal organs and tissues varies among individuals and can be deduced from peripheral blood DNA. MEs should therefore facilitate an improved understanding of the role of interindividual epigenetic variation in human disease.
Author Summary
There is growing interest in the possibility that interindividual epigenetic variation plays an important role in a broad range of human diseases. The tissue-specificity of epigenetic regulation, however, will in many cases make it difficult to obtain the appropriate tissues in which to perform large-scale studies linking epigenetic dysregulation to disease. We have used an innovative two-tissue DNA methylation screen to identify genomic regions that exhibit interindividual epigenetic variation which occurs systemically—i.e. similarly in all tissues. Such regions—called metastable epialleles—have previously been identified in mice because they cause visible phenotypic variation amongst genetically identical individuals. Indeed, we found that even monozygotic twins show substantial epigenetic discordance at these loci. Further, we show that, as in mice, establishment of DNA methylation at these putative human metastable epialleles is labile to maternal environment around the time of conception. Metastable epialleles should facilitate an improved understanding both of the role of interindividual epigenetic variation in human disease and of the effects of early environment on the establishment of human epigenotype.
PMCID: PMC3009670  PMID: 21203497
6.  Genetic Analysis of the Cardiac Methylome at Single Nucleotide Resolution in a Model of Human Cardiovascular Disease 
PLoS Genetics  2014;10(12):e1004813.
Epigenetic marks such as cytosine methylation are important determinants of cellular and whole-body phenotypes. However, the extent of, and reasons for inter-individual differences in cytosine methylation, and their association with phenotypic variation are poorly characterised. Here we present the first genome-wide study of cytosine methylation at single-nucleotide resolution in an animal model of human disease. We used whole-genome bisulfite sequencing in the spontaneously hypertensive rat (SHR), a model of cardiovascular disease, and the Brown Norway (BN) control strain, to define the genetic architecture of cytosine methylation in the mammalian heart and to test for association between methylation and pathophysiological phenotypes. Analysis of 10.6 million CpG dinucleotides identified 77,088 CpGs that were differentially methylated between the strains. In F1 hybrids we found 38,152 CpGs showing allele-specific methylation and 145 regions with parent-of-origin effects on methylation. Cis-linkage explained almost 60% of inter-strain variation in methylation at a subset of loci tested for linkage in a panel of recombinant inbred (RI) strains. Methylation analysis in isolated cardiomyocytes showed that in the majority of cases methylation differences in cardiomyocytes and non-cardiomyocytes were strain-dependent, confirming a strong genetic component for cytosine methylation. We observed preferential nucleotide usage associated with increased and decreased methylation that is remarkably conserved across species, suggesting a common mechanism for germline control of inter-individual variation in CpG methylation. In the RI strain panel, we found significant correlation of CpG methylation and levels of serum chromogranin B (CgB), a proposed biomarker of heart failure, which is evidence for a link between germline DNA sequence variation, CpG methylation differences and pathophysiological phenotypes in the SHR strain. Together, these results will stimulate further investigation of the molecular basis of locally regulated variation in CpG methylation and provide a starting point for understanding the relationship between the genetic control of CpG methylation and disease phenotypes.
Author Summary
Epigenetic marks provide information that is not encoded in the primary DNA sequence itself but in modifications of genomic DNA and of the associated proteins. Methylation of genomic DNA at cytosine residues is an important epigenetic modification that is associated with developmental processes, carcinogenesis and other diseases. Genome-wide extent of, and reasons for inter-individual differences in cytosine methylation, and their association with phenotypic variation are poorly characterised. To address these questions we have determined and compared the genome-wide methylation patterns in heart tissue of two inbred rat strains, the spontaneously hypertensive rat, an animal model of human disease and a control rat strain. Comparison of methylation differences between genetically identical animals from the same strain and differences between animals from different strains allowed us to quantify association of epigenetic and genetic differences. We show that differences in an individual's germline DNA sequence are important determinants of the variability in methylation between individuals. Comparison with previous reports implicates common mechanisms for regulation of cytosine methylation that are highly conserved across species. Finally, we find correlation between a proposed blood biomarker for heart failure and variation in DNA methylation, suggesting a link between germline DNA sequence variation, methylation and a disease-related phenotype.
PMCID: PMC4256262  PMID: 25474312
7.  Association of the CpG Methylation Pattern of the Proximal Insulin Gene Promoter with Type 1 Diabetes 
PLoS ONE  2012;7(5):e36278.
The insulin (INS) region is the second most important locus associated with Type 1 Diabetes (T1D). The study of the DNA methylation pattern of the 7 CpGs proximal to the TSS in the INS gene promoter revealed that T1D patients have a lower level of methylation of CpG -19, -135 and -234 (p = 2.10−16) and a higher methylation of CpG -180 than controls, while methylation was comparable for CpG -69, -102, -206. The magnitude of the hypomethylation relative to a control population was 8–15% of the corresponding levels in controls and was correlated in CpGs -19 and -135 (r = 0.77) and CpG -135 and -234 (r = 0.65). 70/485 (14%) of T1D patients had a simultaneous decrease in methylation of CpG -19, -135, -234 versus none in 317 controls. CpG methylation did not correlate with glycated hemoglobin or with T1D duration. The methylation of CpG -69, -102, -180, -206, but not CpG -19, -135, -234 was strongly influenced by the cis-genotype at rs689, a SNP known to show a strong association with T1D. We hypothesize that part of this genetic association could in fact be mediated at the statistical and functional level by the underlying changes in neighboring CpG methylation. Our observation of a CpG-specific, locus-specific methylation pattern, although it can provide an epigenetic biomarker of a multifactorial disease, does not indicate whether the reported epigenetic pattern preexists or follows the establishment of T1D. To explore the effect of chronic hyperglycemia on CpG methylation, we studied non obese patients with type 2 diabetes (T2D) who were found to have decreased CpG-19 methylation versus age-matched controls, similar to T1D (p = 2.10−6) but increased CpG-234 methylation (p = 5.10−8), the opposite of T1D. The causality and natural history of the different epigenetic changes associated with T1D or T2D remain to be determined.
PMCID: PMC3342174  PMID: 22567146
8.  Comparative Anatomy of Chromosomal Domains with Imprinted and Non-Imprinted Allele-Specific DNA Methylation 
PLoS Genetics  2013;9(8):e1003622.
Allele-specific DNA methylation (ASM) is well studied in imprinted domains, but this type of epigenetic asymmetry is actually found more commonly at non-imprinted loci, where the ASM is dictated not by parent-of-origin but instead by the local haplotype. We identified loci with strong ASM in human tissues from methylation-sensitive SNP array data. Two index regions (bisulfite PCR amplicons), one between the C3orf27 and RPN1 genes in chromosome band 3q21 and the other near the VTRNA2-1 vault RNA in band 5q31, proved to be new examples of imprinted DMRs (maternal alleles methylated) while a third, between STEAP3 and C2orf76 in chromosome band 2q14, showed non-imprinted haplotype-dependent ASM. Using long-read bisulfite sequencing (bis-seq) in 8 human tissues we found that in all 3 domains the ASM is restricted to single differentially methylated regions (DMRs), each less than 2kb. The ASM in the C3orf27-RPN1 intergenic region was placenta-specific and associated with allele-specific expression of a long non-coding RNA. Strikingly, the discrete DMRs in all 3 regions overlap with binding sites for the insulator protein CTCF, which we found selectively bound to the unmethylated allele of the STEAP3-C2orf76 DMR. Methylation mapping in two additional genes with non-imprinted haplotype-dependent ASM, ELK3 and CYP2A7, showed that the CYP2A7 DMR also overlaps a CTCF site. Thus, two features of imprinted domains, highly localized DMRs and allele-specific insulator occupancy by CTCF, can also be found in chromosomal domains with non-imprinted ASM. Arguing for biological importance, our analysis of published whole genome bis-seq data from hES cells revealed multiple genome-wide association study (GWAS) peaks near CTCF binding sites with ASM.
Author Summary
Allele-specific DNA methylation (ASM) is a central mechanism of gene regulation in humans, which can influence inter-individual differences in physical and mental traits and disease susceptibility. ASM is mediated either by parental imprinting, in which the repressed copy (allele) of the gene is determined by which type of parent (mother or father) transmitted it or, for a larger number of genes, by the local DNA sequence, independent of which parent transmitted it. Chromosomal regions with imprinted ASM have been well studied, and certain mechanistic principles, including the role of discrete differentially methylated regions (DMRs) and involvement of the insulator protein CTCF, have emerged. However, the molecular mechanisms underlying non-imprinted sequence-dependent ASM are not yet understood. Here we describe our detailed mapping of ASM across 5 gene regions, including two novel examples of imprinted ASM and three gene regions with non-imprinted, sequence-dependent ASM. Our data uncover shared molecular features – small discrete DMRs, and the binding of CTCF to these DMRs, in examples of both types of ASM. Combining ASM mapping with genetic association data suggests that sequence-dependent ASM at CTCF binding sites influences diverse human traits.
PMCID: PMC3757050  PMID: 24009515
9.  Aging and Environmental Exposures Alter Tissue-Specific DNA Methylation Dependent upon CpG Island Context 
PLoS Genetics  2009;5(8):e1000602.
Epigenetic control of gene transcription is critical for normal human development and cellular differentiation. While alterations of epigenetic marks such as DNA methylation have been linked to cancers and many other human diseases, interindividual epigenetic variations in normal tissues due to aging, environmental factors, or innate susceptibility are poorly characterized. The plasticity, tissue-specific nature, and variability of gene expression are related to epigenomic states that vary across individuals. Thus, population-based investigations are needed to further our understanding of the fundamental dynamics of normal individual epigenomes. We analyzed 217 non-pathologic human tissues from 10 anatomic sites at 1,413 autosomal CpG loci associated with 773 genes to investigate tissue-specific differences in DNA methylation and to discern how aging and exposures contribute to normal variation in methylation. Methylation profile classes derived from unsupervised modeling were significantly associated with age (P<0.0001) and were significant predictors of tissue origin (P<0.0001). In solid tissues (n = 119) we found striking, highly significant CpG island–dependent correlations between age and methylation; loci in CpG islands gained methylation with age, loci not in CpG islands lost methylation with age (P<0.001), and this pattern was consistent across tissues and in an analysis of blood-derived DNA. Our data clearly demonstrate age- and exposure-related differences in tissue-specific methylation and significant age-associated methylation patterns which are CpG island context-dependent. This work provides novel insight into the role of aging and the environment in susceptibility to diseases such as cancer and critically informs the field of epigenomics by providing evidence of epigenetic dysregulation by age-related methylation alterations. Collectively we reveal key issues to consider both in the construction of reference and disease-related epigenomes and in the interpretation of potentially pathologically important alterations.
Author Summary
The causes and extent of tissue-specific interindividual variation in human epigenomes are underappreciated and, hence, poorly characterized. We surveyed over 200 carefully annotated human tissue samples from ten anatosites at 1,413 CpGs for methylation alterations to appraise the nature of phenotypically, and hence potentially clinically important epigenomic alterations. Within tissue types, across individuals, we found variation in methylation that was significantly related to aging and environmental exposures such as tobacco smoking. Individual variation in age- and exposure-related methylation may significantly contribute to increased susceptibility to several diseases. As the NIH–funded HapMap project is critically contributing to annotating the human reference genome defining normal genetic variability, our work raises key issues to consider in the construction of reference epigenomes. It is well recognized that understanding genetic variation is essential to understanding disease. Our work, and the known interplay of epigenetics and genetics, makes it equally clear that a more complete characterization of epigenetic variation and its sources must be accomplished to reach the goal of a complete understanding of disease. Additional research is absolutely necessary to define the mechanisms controlling epigenomic variation. We have begun to lay the foundations for essential normal tissue controls for comparison to diseased tissue, which will allow the identification of the most crucial disease-related alterations and provide more robust targets for novel treatments.
PMCID: PMC2718614  PMID: 19680444
10.  Prenatal Tobacco Smoke Exposure Affects Global and Gene-specific DNA Methylation 
Rationale: Prenatal exposure to tobacco smoke increases the risk for diseases later in the child's life that may be mediated through alterations in DNA methylation.
Objectives: To demonstrate that differences in DNA methylation patterns occur in children exposed to tobacco smoke and that variation in detoxification genes may alter these associations.
Methods: Methylation of DNA repetitive elements, LINE1 and AluYb8, was measured using bisulfite conversion and pyrosequencing in buccal cells of 348 children participating in the Children's Health Study. Gene-specific CpG methylation differences associated with smoke exposure were screened in 272 participants in the Children's Health Study children using an Illumina GoldenGate panel. CpG loci that demonstrated a statistically significant difference in methylation were validated by pyrosequencing. Estimates were standardized across loci using a Z score to enable cross-comparison of results.
Measurements and Main Results: DNA methylation patterns were associated with in utero exposure to maternal smoking. Exposed children had significantly lower methylation of AluYb8 (β, −0.31; P = 0.03). Differences in smoking-related effects on LINE1 methylation were observed in children with the common GSTM1 null genotype. Differential methylation of CpG loci in eight genes was identified through the screen. Two genes, AXL and PTPRO, were validated by pyrosequencing and showed significant increases in methylation of 0.37 (P = 0.005) and 0.34 (P = 0.02) in exposed children. The associations with maternal smoking varied by a common GSTP1 haplotype.
Conclusions: Life-long effects of in utero exposures may be mediated through alterations in DNA methylation. Variants in detoxification genes may modulate the effects of in utero exposure through epigenetic mechanisms.
PMCID: PMC2742762  PMID: 19498054
DNA methylation; epigenetics; prenatal; smoke
11.  Allele-Specific, Age-Dependent and BMI-Associated DNA Methylation of Human MCHR1 
PLoS ONE  2011;6(5):e17711.
Melanin-concentrating hormone receptor 1 (MCHR1) plays a significant role in regulation of energy balance, food intake, physical activity and body weight in humans and rodents. Several association studies for human obesity showed contrary results concerning the SNPs rs133072 (G/A) and rs133073 (T/C), which localize to the first exon of MCHR1. The variations constitute two main haplotypes (GT, AC). Both SNPs affect CpG dinucleotides, whereby each haplotype contains a potential methylation site at one of the two SNP positions. In addition, 15 CpGs in close vicinity of these SNPs constitute a weak CpG island. Here, we studied whether DNA methylation in this sequence context may contribute to population- and age-specific effects of MCHR1 alleles in obesity.
Principal Findings
We analyzed DNA methylation of a 315 bp region of MCHR1 encompassing rs133072 and rs133073 and the CpG island in blood samples of 49 individuals by bisulfite sequencing. The AC haplotype shows a significantly higher methylation level than the GT haplotype. This allele-specific methylation is age-dependent. In young individuals (20–30 years) the difference in DNA methylation between haplotypes is significant; whereas in individuals older than 60 years it is not detectable. Interestingly, the GT allele shows a decrease in methylation status with increasing BMI, whereas the methylation of the AC allele is not associated with this phenotype. Heterozygous lymphoblastoid cell lines show the same pattern of allele-specific DNA methylation. The cell line, which exhibits the highest difference in methylation levels between both haplotypes, also shows allele-specific transcription of MCHR1, which can be abolished by treatment with the DNA methylase inhibitor 5-aza-2′-deoxycytidine.
We show that DNA methylation at MCHR1 is allele-specific, age-dependent, BMI-associated and affects transcription. Conceivably, this epigenetic regulation contributes to the age- and/or population specific effects reported for MCHR1 in several human obesity studies.
PMCID: PMC3102661  PMID: 21637341
12.  Haploinsufficiency of the paternal-effect gene Dnmt3L results in transient DNA hypomethylation in progenitor cells of the male germline 
How does haploinsufficiency of the paternal-effect gene Dnmt3L affect DNA methylation establishment and stability in the male germline?
Reduced expression of DNMT3L in male germ cells, associated with haploinsufficiency of the paternal-effect gene Dnmt3L, results in abnormal hypomethylation of prenatal germline progenitor cells.
The DNA methyltransferase regulator Dnmt3-Like (Dnmt3L) is a paternal-effect gene required for DNA methylation acquisition in male germline stem cells and their precursors. In males, DNMT3L deficiency causes meiotic abnormalities and infertility. While Dnmt3L heterozygous males are fertile, they have abnormalities in X chromosome compaction and postmeiotic gene expression and sire offspring with sex chromosome aneuploidy. It has been proposed that the paternal effects of Dnmt3L haploinsufficiency are due to epigenetic defects in early male germ cells. DNA methylation is an essential epigenetic modification essential for normal germ cell development. Since patterns of DNA methylation across the genome are initially acquired in prenatal male germ cells, perturbations in methylation could contribute to the epigenetic basis of the paternal effects in Dnmt3L+/− males.
This is a cross-sectional study of DNA methylation in Dnmt3L+/+ versus Dnmt3L+/− male germ cells collected from mice at 16.5 days post-coitum (dpc), Day 6 and Day 70 (n = 3 per genotype, each n represents a pool of 2–20 animals). Additionally, DNA methylation was compared in enriched populations of spermatogonial stem cells (SSC)/progenitor cells from Dnmt3L+/+ and Dnmt3L+/− males following ∼2 months in culture.
DNA methylation at intergenic loci along chromosomes 9 and X was examined by quantitative analysis of DNA methylation by real-time polymerase chain reaction at the time of initial acquisition of epigenetic patterns in the prenatal male germline (16.5 dpc) and compared with patterns in early post-natal spermatogonia (Day 6) and in spermatozoa in mice. DNA methylation status at CpG-rich sites across the genome was assessed in spermatogonial precursors from Day 4 male mice using restriction landmark genomic scanning.
At 16.5 dpc, 42% of intergenic loci examined along chromosome 9 and 10% of those along chromosome X were hypomethylated in Dnmt3L heterozygotes. By Day 6 and in spermatozoa, germ cell DNA methylation was similar in heterozygous and wild-type mice. DNA methylation stability of acquired patterns in wild-type and Dnmt3L+/− SSC/progenitor cell culture was analyzed at numerous loci across the genome in cells cultured in vitro and collected at passages 6–28. While the methylation of most loci was stable in culture over time, differences at ∼1% of sites were found between Dnmt3L+/− and Dnmt3L+/+ cultures.
Evaluation of DNA methylation in SSCs can only be performed after a period of culture limiting the investigation to changes observed during culture when compared with DNA methylation differences between genotypes that could be present at the beginning of culture establishment.
The DNA methylation defects described here in prenatal male germline progenitor cells and SSC culture are the earliest epigenetic perturbations yet identified for a mammalian paternal-effect gene and may influence downstream epigenetic events in germ cells at later stages of development. Together, the results provide evidence of a ‘window’ of susceptibility in prenatal male germ cell precursors for the induction of epimutations due to genetic perturbations and, potentially, in utero environmental exposures.
Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) provided funding for J.M.T. (MOP229913) and M.C.N. (MOP86532). The authors have no conflicts of interest to declare.
PMCID: PMC3695691  PMID: 23159436
epigenetics; DNA methylation; Dnmt3L; spermatogonial stem cells; paternal effect
13.  A Six Months Exercise Intervention Influences the Genome-wide DNA Methylation Pattern in Human Adipose Tissue 
PLoS Genetics  2013;9(6):e1003572.
Epigenetic mechanisms are implicated in gene regulation and the development of different diseases. The epigenome differs between cell types and has until now only been characterized for a few human tissues. Environmental factors potentially alter the epigenome. Here we describe the genome-wide pattern of DNA methylation in human adipose tissue from 23 healthy men, with a previous low level of physical activity, before and after a six months exercise intervention. We also investigate the differences in adipose tissue DNA methylation between 31 individuals with or without a family history of type 2 diabetes. DNA methylation was analyzed using Infinium HumanMethylation450 BeadChip, an array containing 485,577 probes covering 99% RefSeq genes. Global DNA methylation changed and 17,975 individual CpG sites in 7,663 unique genes showed altered levels of DNA methylation after the exercise intervention (q<0.05). Differential mRNA expression was present in 1/3 of gene regions with altered DNA methylation, including RALBP1, HDAC4 and NCOR2 (q<0.05). Using a luciferase assay, we could show that increased DNA methylation in vitro of the RALBP1 promoter suppressed the transcriptional activity (p = 0.03). Moreover, 18 obesity and 21 type 2 diabetes candidate genes had CpG sites with differences in adipose tissue DNA methylation in response to exercise (q<0.05), including TCF7L2 (6 CpG sites) and KCNQ1 (10 CpG sites). A simultaneous change in mRNA expression was seen for 6 of those genes. To understand if genes that exhibit differential DNA methylation and mRNA expression in human adipose tissue in vivo affect adipocyte metabolism, we silenced Hdac4 and Ncor2 respectively in 3T3-L1 adipocytes, which resulted in increased lipogenesis both in the basal and insulin stimulated state. In conclusion, exercise induces genome-wide changes in DNA methylation in human adipose tissue, potentially affecting adipocyte metabolism.
Author Summary
Given the important role of epigenetics in gene regulation and disease development, we here present the genome-wide DNA methylation pattern of 476,753 CpG sites in adipose tissue obtained from healthy men. Since environmental factors potentially change metabolism through epigenetic modifications, we examined if a six months exercise intervention alters the DNA methylation pattern as well as gene expression in human adipose tissue. Our results show that global DNA methylation changes and 17,975 individual CpG sites alter the levels of DNA methylation in response to exercise. We also found differential DNA methylation of 39 candidate genes for obesity and type 2 diabetes in human adipose tissue after exercise. Additionally, we provide functional proof that genes, which exhibit both differential DNA methylation and gene expression in human adipose tissue in response to exercise, influence adipocyte metabolism. Together, this study provides the first detailed map of the genome-wide DNA methylation pattern in human adipose tissue and links exercise to altered adipose tissue DNA methylation, potentially affecting adipocyte metabolism.
PMCID: PMC3694844  PMID: 23825961
14.  Association of FTO Polymorphisms with Obesity and Metabolic Parameters in Han Chinese Adolescents 
PLoS ONE  2014;9(6):e98984.
Previous studies have suggested that fat mass-and obesity-associated (FTO) gene is associated with body mass index (BMI) and the risk of obesity. This study aims to assess the association of five FTO polymorphisms (rs9939609, rs8050136, rs1558902, rs3751812 and rs6499640) with obesity and relative parameters in Han Chinese adolescents.
We examined a total of 401 adolescents, 223 normal weights (58.7% boys, 41.3% girls), 178 overweight (60.1% boys, 39.9% girls), aging from 14 to 18-years-old, recruited randomly from public schools in the central region of Wuxi, a southern city of China. DNA samples were genotyped for the five polymorphisms by Sequenom Plex MassARRAY. Association of the FTO polymorphisms with BMI, serum fasting plasm glucose (FPG), fasting insulin (FIns), triglyceride (TG) and cholesterol (TC) were investigated.
1) Serum FPG, FIns, TG and TC were statistically significant higher than that in normal control group. 2) We found that BMI was higher in the rs9939609 TA+AA, rs8050136 AC+AA, rs1558902 TA+AA and rs3751812 GT+TT genotypes than in wild TT genotypes (rs9939609: P = 0.038; rs1558902: P = 0.038;), CC genotypes(rs8050136: P = 0.024) and GG genotypes (rs3751812: P = 0.024), which were not significant on adjusting for multiple testing. 3) In case-control studies, five polymorphisms were not significantly associated with overweight (p>0.05), haplotype analyses showed non-haplotype is significantly associated with a higher risk of being overweight (p>0.05). 4) There existed no significant statistical difference about FPG, FIns, TG and TC in genotype model for any SNP.
Our study has conducted a genetic association study of the FTO polymorphisms with BMI, serum fasting plasm glucose (FPG), fasting insulin (FIns), triglyceride (TG) and cholesterol (TC). Our study found BMI of subjects with A allele of FTO rs9939609 is higher than that with T allele. Further studies on other polymorphisms from FTO and increasing the sample size are needed.
PMCID: PMC4049598  PMID: 24911064
15.  A Genome-Wide Screen for Promoter Methylation in Lung Cancer Identifies Novel Methylation Markers for Multiple Malignancies  
PLoS Medicine  2006;3(12):e486.
Promoter hypermethylation coupled with loss of heterozygosity at the same locus results in loss of gene function in many tumor cells. The “rules” governing which genes are methylated during the pathogenesis of individual cancers, how specific methylation profiles are initially established, or what determines tumor type-specific methylation are unknown. However, DNA methylation markers that are highly specific and sensitive for common tumors would be useful for the early detection of cancer, and those required for the malignant phenotype would identify pathways important as therapeutic targets.
Methods and Findings
In an effort to identify new cancer-specific methylation markers, we employed a high-throughput global expression profiling approach in lung cancer cells. We identified 132 genes that have 5′ CpG islands, are induced from undetectable levels by 5-aza-2′-deoxycytidine in multiple non-small cell lung cancer cell lines, and are expressed in immortalized human bronchial epithelial cells. As expected, these genes were also expressed in normal lung, but often not in companion primary lung cancers. Methylation analysis of a subset (45/132) of these promoter regions in primary lung cancer (n = 20) and adjacent nonmalignant tissue (n = 20) showed that 31 genes had acquired methylation in the tumors, but did not show methylation in normal lung or peripheral blood cells. We studied the eight most frequently and specifically methylated genes from our lung cancer dataset in breast cancer (n = 37), colon cancer (n = 24), and prostate cancer (n = 24) along with counterpart nonmalignant tissues. We found that seven loci were frequently methylated in both breast and lung cancers, with four showing extensive methylation in all four epithelial tumors.
By using a systematic biological screen we identified multiple genes that are methylated with high penetrance in primary lung, breast, colon, and prostate cancers. The cross-tumor methylation pattern we observed for these novel markers suggests that we have identified a partial promoter hypermethylation signature for these common malignancies. These data suggest that while tumors in different tissues vary substantially with respect to gene expression, there may be commonalities in their promoter methylation profiles that represent targets for early detection screening or therapeutic intervention.
John Minna and colleagues report that a group of genes are commonly methylated in primary lung, breast, colon, and prostate cancer.
Editors' Summary
Tumors or cancers contain cells that have lost many of the control mechanisms that normally regulate their behavior. Unlike normal cells, which only divide to repair damaged tissues, cancer cells divide uncontrollably. They also gain the ability to move round the body and start metastases in secondary locations. These changes in behavior result from alterations in their genetic material. For example, mutations (permanent changes in the sequence of nucleotides in the cell's DNA) in genes known as oncogenes stimulate cells to divide constantly. Mutations in another group of genes—tumor suppressor genes—disable their ability to restrain cell growth. Key tumor suppressor genes are often completely lost in cancer cells. But not all the genetic changes in cancer cells are mutations. Some are “epigenetic” changes—chemical modifications of genes that affect the amount of protein made from them. In cancer cells, methyl groups are often added to CG-rich regions—this is called hypermethylation. These “CpG islands” lie near gene promoters—sequences that control the transcription of DNA into RNA, the template for protein production—and their methylation switches off the promoter. Methylation of the promoter of one copy of a tumor suppressor gene, which often coincides with the loss of the other copy of the gene, is thought to be involved in cancer development.
Why Was This Study Done?
The rules that govern which genes are hypermethylated during the development of different cancer types are not known, but it would be useful to identify any DNA methylation events that occur regularly in common cancers for two reasons. First, specific DNA methylation markers might be useful for the early detection of cancer. Second, identifying these epigenetic changes might reveal cellular pathways that are changed during cancer development and so identify new therapeutic targets. In this study, the researchers have used a systematic biological screen to identify genes that are methylated in many lung, breast, colon, and prostate cancers—all cancers that form in “epithelial” tissues.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers used microarray expression profiling to examine gene expression patterns in several lung cancer and normal lung cell lines. In this technique, labeled RNA molecules isolated from cells are applied to a “chip” carrying an array of gene fragments. Here, they stick to the fragment that represents the gene from which they were made, which allows the genes that the cells express to be catalogued. By comparing the expression profiles of lung cancer cells and normal lung cells before and after treatment with a chemical that inhibits DNA methylation, the researchers identified genes that were methylated in the cancer cells—that is, genes that were expressed in normal cells but not in cancer cells unless methylation was inhibited. 132 of these genes contained CpG islands. The researchers examined the promoters of 45 of these genes in lung cancer cells taken straight from patients and found that 31 of the promoters were methylated in tumor tissues but not in adjacent normal tissues. Finally, the researchers looked at promoter methylation of the eight genes most frequently and specifically methylated in the lung cancer samples in breast, colon, and prostate cancers. Seven of the genes were frequently methylated in both lung and breast cancers; four were extensively methylated in all the tumor types.
What Do These Findings Mean?
These results identify several new genes that are often methylated in four types of epithelial tumor. The observation that these genes are methylated in multiple independent tumors strongly suggests, but does not prove, that loss of expression of the proteins that they encode helps to convert normal cells into cancer cells. The frequency and diverse patterning of promoter methylation in different tumor types also indicates that methylation is not a random event, although what controls the patterns of methylation is not yet known. The identification of these genes is a step toward building a promoter hypermethylation profile for the early detection of human cancer. Furthermore, although tumors in different tissues vary greatly with respect to gene expression patterns, the similarities seen in this study in promoter methylation profiles might help to identify new therapeutic targets common to several cancer types.
Additional Information.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at
US National Cancer Institute, information for patients on understanding cancer
CancerQuest, information provided by Emory University about how cancer develops
Cancer Research UK, information for patients on cancer biology
Wikipedia pages on epigenetics (note that Wikipedia is a free online encyclopedia that anyone can edit)
The Epigenome Network of Excellence, background information and latest news about epigenetics
PMCID: PMC1716188  PMID: 17194187
16.  Genome-wide high-resolution mapping of DNA methylation identifies epigenetic variation across embryo and endosperm in Maize (Zea may) 
BMC Genomics  2015;16(1):21.
Epigenetic modifications play important roles in plant and animal development. DNA methylation impacts the transposable element (TE) silencing, gene imprinting and expression regulation.
Through a genome-wide analysis, DNA methylation peaks were characterized and mapped in maize embryo and endosperm genome, respectively. Distinct methylation level was observed across maize embryo and endosperm. The maize embryo genome contained more DNA methylation than endosperm. Totally, 985,478 CG islands (CGIs) were identified and most of them were unmethylated. More CGI shores were methylated than CGIs in maize suggested that DNA methylation level was not positively correlated with CpG density. The promoter sequence and transcriptional termination region (TTR) were more methylated than the gene body (intron and exon) region based on peak number and methylated depth. Result showed that 99% TEs were methylated in maize embryo, but a large portion of them (34.8%) were not methylated in endosperm. Maize embryo and endosperm exhibit distinct pattern/level of methylation. The most differentially methylated region between embryo and endosperm are CGI shores. Our results indicated that DNA methylation is associated with both gene silencing and gene activation in maize. Many genes involved in embryogenesis and seed development were found differentially methylated in embryo and endosperm. We found 41.5% imprinting genes were similarly methylated and 58.5% imprinting genes were differentially methylated between embryo and endosperm. Methylation level was associated with allelic silencing of only a small number of imprinting genes. The expression of maize DEMETER-like (DME-like) gene and MBD101 gene (MBD4 homolog) were higher in endosperm than in embryo. These two genes may be associated with distinct methylation levels across maize embryo and endosperm.
Through MeDIP-seq we systematically analyzed the methylomes of maize embryo and endosperm and results indicated that the global methylation status of embryo was more than that of the endosperm. Differences could be observed at the total number of methylation peaks, DMRs and specific methylated genes which were tightly associated with development of embryo and endosperm. Our results also revealed that many DNA methylation regions didn’t affect transcription of the corresponding genes.
Electronic supplementary material
The online version of this article (doi:10.1186/s12864-014-1204-7) contains supplementary material, which is available to authorized users.
PMCID: PMC4316406  PMID: 25612809
DNA methylation; Maize; Embryo; Endosperm; Transposable element; Imprinting gene; MeDIP-seq
17.  Tissue-Specific Effects of Genetic and Epigenetic Variation on Gene Regulation and Splicing 
PLoS Genetics  2015;11(1):e1004958.
Understanding how genetic variation affects distinct cellular phenotypes, such as gene expression levels, alternative splicing and DNA methylation levels, is essential for better understanding of complex diseases and traits. Furthermore, how inter-individual variation of DNA methylation is associated to gene expression is just starting to be studied. In this study, we use the GenCord cohort of 204 newborn Europeans’ lymphoblastoid cell lines, T-cells and fibroblasts derived from umbilical cords. The samples were previously genotyped for 2.5 million SNPs, mRNA-sequenced, and assayed for methylation levels in 482,421 CpG sites. We observe that methylation sites associated to expression levels are enriched in enhancers, gene bodies and CpG island shores. We show that while the correlation between DNA methylation and gene expression can be positive or negative, it is very consistent across cell-types. However, this epigenetic association to gene expression appears more tissue-specific than the genetic effects on gene expression or DNA methylation (observed in both sharing estimations based on P-values and effect size correlations between cell-types). This predominance of genetic effects can also be reflected by the observation that allele specific expression differences between individuals dominate over tissue-specific effects. Additionally, we discover genetic effects on alternative splicing and interestingly, a large amount of DNA methylation correlating to alternative splicing, both in a tissue-specific manner. The locations of the SNPs and methylation sites involved in these associations highlight the participation of promoter proximal and distant regulatory regions on alternative splicing. Overall, our results provide high-resolution analyses showing how genome sequence variation has a broad effect on cellular phenotypes across cell-types, whereas epigenetic factors provide a secondary layer of variation that is more tissue-specific. Furthermore, the details of how this tissue-specificity may vary across inter-relations of molecular traits, and where these are occurring, can yield further insights into gene regulation and cellular biology as a whole.
Author Summary
In order to better understand how genetic differences between individuals can cause diseases, it is crucial to understand how genetic variants affect cellular functions in the different tissues that compose the human body. From the umbilical cord of 195 newborn babies, we previously obtained three different cell-types: fibroblasts, T-cells and immortalized B-cells. From every individual in each cell type we measured four features across the genome: 1) genetic differences, 2) DNA methylation, an epigenetic modification of DNA that can affect its functional state, 3) gene expression—the amount of gene activity, 4) alternative splicing—which of the different versions of a gene is manifested. We find thousands of genetic variants of the DNA sequence that affect methylation, gene expression, and splicing. We show that while these genetic effects often affect multiple cell-types, the strength of these effects varies between cell-types. Also epigenetic methylation marks of DNA associate to gene expression and particularly often to splicing. Since abnormalities in gene expression, DNA methylation and alternative splicing are associated to diseases, it is important to continue studying how these traits are inter-related and affected by genetic variation across cell-types.
PMCID: PMC4310612  PMID: 25634236
18.  Role of DNA Methylation and Epigenetic Silencing of HAND2 in Endometrial Cancer Development 
PLoS Medicine  2013;10(11):e1001551.
TB filled in by Laureen
Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary
Endometrial cancer incidence is continuing to rise in the wake of the current ageing and obesity epidemics. Much of the risk for endometrial cancer development is influenced by the environment and lifestyle. Accumulating evidence suggests that the epigenome serves as the interface between the genome and the environment and that hypermethylation of stem cell polycomb group target genes is an epigenetic hallmark of cancer. The objective of this study was to determine the functional role of epigenetic factors in endometrial cancer development.
Methods and Findings
Epigenome-wide methylation analysis of >27,000 CpG sites in endometrial cancer tissue samples (n = 64) and control samples (n = 23) revealed that HAND2 (a gene encoding a transcription factor expressed in the endometrial stroma) is one of the most commonly hypermethylated and silenced genes in endometrial cancer. A novel integrative epigenome-transcriptome-interactome analysis further revealed that HAND2 is the hub of the most highly ranked differential methylation hotspot in endometrial cancer. These findings were validated using candidate gene methylation analysis in multiple clinical sample sets of tissue samples from a total of 272 additional women. Increased HAND2 methylation was a feature of premalignant endometrial lesions and was seen to parallel a decrease in RNA and protein levels. Furthermore, women with high endometrial HAND2 methylation in their premalignant lesions were less likely to respond to progesterone treatment. HAND2 methylation analysis of endometrial secretions collected using high vaginal swabs taken from women with postmenopausal bleeding specifically identified those patients with early stage endometrial cancer with both high sensitivity and high specificity (receiver operating characteristics area under the curve = 0.91 for stage 1A and 0.97 for higher than stage 1A). Finally, mice harbouring a Hand2 knock-out specifically in their endometrium were shown to develop precancerous endometrial lesions with increasing age, and these lesions also demonstrated a lack of PTEN expression.
HAND2 methylation is a common and crucial molecular alteration in endometrial cancer that could potentially be employed as a biomarker for early detection of endometrial cancer and as a predictor of treatment response. The true clinical utility of HAND2 DNA methylation, however, requires further validation in prospective studies.
Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary
Editors' Summary
Cancer, which is responsible for 13% of global deaths, can develop anywhere in the body, but all cancers are characterized by uncontrolled cell growth and reduced cellular differentiation (the process by which unspecialized cells such as “stem” cells become specialized during development, tissue repair, and normal cell turnover). Genetic alterations—changes in the sequence of nucleotides (DNA's building blocks) in specific genes—are required for this cellular transformation and subsequent cancer development (carcinogenesis). However, recent evidence suggests that epigenetic modifications—reversible, heritable changes in gene function that occur in the absence of nucleotide sequence changes—may also be involved in carcinogenesis. For example, the addition of methyl groups to a set of genes called stem cell polycomb group target genes (PCGTs; polycomb genes control the expression of their target genes by modifying their DNA or associated proteins) is one of the earliest molecular changes in human cancer development, and increasing evidence suggests that hypermethylation of PCGTs is an epigenetic hallmark of cancer.
Why Was This Study Done?
The methylation of PCGTs, which is triggered by age and by environmental factors that are associated with cancer development, reduces cellular differentiation and leads to the accumulation of undifferentiated cells that are susceptible to cancer development. It is unclear, however, whether epigenetic modifications have a causal role in carcinogenesis. Here, the researchers investigate the involvement of epigenetic factors in the development of endometrial (womb) cancer. The risk of endometrial cancer (which affects nearly 50,000 women annually in the United States) is largely determined by environmental and lifestyle factors. Specifically, the risk of this cancer is increased in women in whom estrogen (a hormone that drives cell proliferation in the endometrium) is functionally dominant over progesterone (a hormone that inhibits endometrial proliferation and causes cell differentiation); obese women and women who have taken estrogen-only hormone replacement therapies fall into this category. Thus, endometrial cancer is an ideal model in which to study whether epigenetic mechanisms underlie carcinogenesis.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers collected data on genome-wide DNA methylation at cytosine- and guanine-rich sites in endometrial cancers and normal endometrium and integrated this information with the human interactome and transcriptome (all the physical interactions between proteins and all the genes expressed, respectively, in a cell) using an algorithm called Functional Epigenetic Modules (FEM). This analysis identified HAND2 as the hub of the most highly ranked differential methylation hotspot in endometrial cancer. HAND2 is a progesterone-regulated stem cell PCGT. It encodes a transcription factor that is expressed in the endometrial stroma (the connective tissue that lies below the epithelial cells in which most endometrial cancers develop) and that suppresses the production of the growth factors that mediate the growth-inducing effects of estrogen on the endometrial epithelium. The researchers hypothesized, therefore, that epigenetic deregulation of HAND2 could be a key step in endometrial cancer development. In support of this hypothesis, the researchers report that HAND2 methylation was increased in premalignant endometrial lesions (cancer-prone, abnormal-looking tissue) compared to normal endometrium, and was associated with suppression of HAND2 expression. Moreover, a high level of endometrial HAND2 methylation in premalignant lesions predicted a poor response to progesterone treatment (which stops the growth of some endometrial cancers), and analysis of HAND2 methylation in endometrial secretions collected from women with postmenopausal bleeding (a symptom of endometrial cancer) accurately identified individuals with early stage endometrial cancer. Finally, mice in which the Hand2 gene was specifically deleted in the endometrium developed precancerous endometrial lesions with age.
What Do These Findings Mean?
These and other findings identify HAND2 methylation as a common, key molecular alteration in endometrial cancer. These findings need to be confirmed in more women, and studies are needed to determine the immediate molecular and cellular consequences of HAND2 silencing in endometrial stromal cells. Nevertheless, these results suggest that HAND2 methylation could potentially be used as a biomarker for the early detection of endometrial cancer and for predicting treatment response. More generally, these findings support the idea that methylation of HAND2 (and, by extension, the methylation of other PCGTs) is not a passive epigenetic feature of cancer but is functionally involved in cancer development, and provide a framework for identifying other genes that are epigenetically regulated and functionally important in carcinogenesis.
Additional Information
Please access these websites via the online version of this summary at
The US National Cancer Institute provides information on all aspects of cancer and has detailed information about endometrial cancer for patients and professionals (in English and Spanish)
The not-for-profit organization American Cancer Society provides information on cancer and how it develops and specific information on endometrial cancer (in several languages)
The UK National Health Service Choices website includes an introduction to cancer, a page on endometrial cancer, and a personal story about endometrial cancer
The not-for-profit organization Cancer Research UK provides general information about cancer and specific information about endometrial cancer
Wikipedia has a page on cancer epigenetics (note: Wikipedia is a free online encyclopedia that anyone can edit; available in several languages)
The Eve Appeal charity that supported this research provides useful information on gynecological cancers
PMCID: PMC3825654  PMID: 24265601
19.  Methylation QTLs Are Associated with Coordinated Changes in Transcription Factor Binding, Histone Modifications, and Gene Expression Levels 
PLoS Genetics  2014;10(9):e1004663.
DNA methylation is an important epigenetic regulator of gene expression. Recent studies have revealed widespread associations between genetic variation and methylation levels. However, the mechanistic links between genetic variation and methylation remain unclear. To begin addressing this gap, we collected methylation data at ∼300,000 loci in lymphoblastoid cell lines (LCLs) from 64 HapMap Yoruba individuals, and genome-wide bisulfite sequence data in ten of these individuals. We identified (at an FDR of 10%) 13,915 cis methylation QTLs (meQTLs)—i.e., CpG sites in which changes in DNA methylation are associated with genetic variation at proximal loci. We found that meQTLs are frequently associated with changes in methylation at multiple CpGs across regions of up to 3 kb. Interestingly, meQTLs are also frequently associated with variation in other properties of gene regulation, including histone modifications, DNase I accessibility, chromatin accessibility, and expression levels of nearby genes. These observations suggest that genetic variants may lead to coordinated molecular changes in all of these regulatory phenotypes. One plausible driver of coordinated changes in different regulatory mechanisms is variation in transcription factor (TF) binding. Indeed, we found that SNPs that change predicted TF binding affinities are significantly enriched for associations with DNA methylation at nearby CpGs.
Author Summary
DNA methylation is an important epigenetic mark that contributes to many biological processes including the regulation of gene expression. Genetic variation has been associated with quantitative changes in DNA methylation (meQTLs). We identified thousands of meQTLs using an assay that allowed us to measure methylation levels at around 300 thousand cytosines. We found that meQTLs are enriched with loci that is also associated with quantitative changes in gene expression, DNase I hypersensitivity, PolII occupancy, and a number of histone marks. This suggests that many molecular events are likely regulated in concert. Finally, we found that changes in transcription factor binding as well as transcription factor abundance are associated with changes in DNA methylation near transcription factor binding sites. This work contributes to our understanding of the regulation of DNA methylation in the larger context of gene regulatory landscape.
PMCID: PMC4169251  PMID: 25233095
20.  Genetic Variation at the FTO Locus Influences RBL2 Gene Expression 
Diabetes  2009;59(3):726-732.
Genome-wide association studies that compare the statistical association between thousands of DNA variations and a human trait have detected 958 loci across 127 different diseases and traits. However, these statistical associations only provide evidence for genomic regions likely to harbor a causal gene(s) and do not directly identify such genes. We combined gene variation and expression data in a human cohort to identify causal genes.
Global gene transcription activity was obtained for each individual in a large human cohort (n = 1,240). These quantitative transcript data were tested for correlation with genotype data generated from the same individuals to identify gene expression patterns influenced by the variants.
Variant rs8050136 lies within intron 1 of the FTO gene on chromosome 16 and marks a locus strongly associated with type 2 diabetes and obesity and widely replicated across many populations. We report that genetic variation at this locus does not influence FTO gene expression levels (P = 0.38), but is strongly correlated with expression of RBL2 (P = 2.7 × 10−5), ∼270,000 base pairs distant to FTO.
These data suggest that variants at FTO influence RBL2 gene expression at large genetic distances. This observation underscores the complexity of human transcriptional regulation and highlights the utility of large human cohorts in which both genetic variation and global gene expression data are available to identify disease genes. Expedient identification of genes mediating the effects of genome-wide association study–identified loci will enable mechanism-of-action studies and accelerate understanding of human disease processes under genetic influence.
PMCID: PMC2828652  PMID: 20009087
21.  Identification of CpG-SNPs associated with type 2 diabetes and differential DNA methylation in human pancreatic islets 
Diabetologia  2013;56(5):1036-1046.
To date, the molecular function of most of the reported type 2 diabetes-associated loci remains unknown. The introduction or removal of cytosine–phosphate–guanine (CpG) dinucleotides, which are possible sites of DNA methylation, has been suggested as a potential mechanism through which single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) can affect gene function via epigenetics. The aim of this study was to examine if any of 40 SNPs previously associated with type 2 diabetes introduce or remove a CpG site and if these CpG-SNPs are associated with differential DNA methylation in pancreatic islets of 84 human donors.
DNA methylation was analysed using pyrosequencing.
We found that 19 of 40 (48%) type 2 diabetes-associated SNPs introduce or remove a CpG site. Successful DNA methylation data were generated for 16 of these 19 CpG-SNP loci, representing the candidate genes TCF7L2, KCNQ1, PPARG, HHEX, CDKN2A, SLC30A8, DUSP9, CDKAL1, ADCY5, SRR, WFS1, IRS1, DUSP8, HMGA2, TSPAN8 and CHCHD9. All analysed CpG-SNPs were associated with differential DNA methylation of the CpG-SNP site in human islets. Moreover, six CpG-SNPs, representing TCF7L2, KCNQ1, CDKN2A, ADCY5, WFS1 and HMGA2, were also associated with DNA methylation of surrounding CpG sites. Some of the type 2 diabetes CpG-SNP sites that exhibit differential DNA methylation were further associated with gene expression, alternative splicing events determined by splice index, and hormone secretion in the human islets. The 19 type 2 diabetes-associated CpG-SNPs are in strong linkage disequilibrium (r2 > 0.8) with a total of 295 SNPs, including 91 CpG-SNPs.
Our results suggest that the introduction or removal of a CpG site may be a molecular mechanism through which some of the type 2 diabetes SNPs affect gene function via differential DNA methylation and consequently contributes to the phenotype of the disease.
Electronic supplementary material
The online version of this article (doi:10.1007/s00125-012-2815-7) contains peer-reviewed but unedited supplementary material, which is available to authorised users.
PMCID: PMC3622750  PMID: 23462794
Alternative splicing; CpG-SNP; DNA methylation; Epigenetics; Glucagon; Human pancreatic islets; Insulin secretion; SNP; Splice index; Type 2 diabetes
22.  DNA methylation epigenotypes in breast cancer molecular subtypes 
Identification of gene expression-based breast cancer subtypes is considered a critical means of prognostication. Genetic mutations along with epigenetic alterations contribute to gene-expression changes occurring in breast cancer. So far, these epigenetic contributions to sporadic breast cancer subtypes have not been well characterized, and only a limited understanding exists of the epigenetic mechanisms affected in those particular breast cancer subtypes. The present study was undertaken to dissect the breast cancer methylome and to deliver specific epigenotypes associated with particular breast cancer subtypes.
By using a microarray approach, we analyzed DNA methylation in regulatory regions of 806 cancer-related genes in 28 breast cancer paired samples. We subsequently performed substantial technical and biologic validation by pyrosequencing, investigating the top qualifying 19 CpG regions in independent cohorts encompassing 47 basal-like, 44 ERBB2+ overexpressing, 48 luminal A, and 48 luminal B paired breast cancer/adjacent tissues. With the all-subset selection method, we identified the most subtype-predictive methylation profiles in multivariable logistic regression analysis.
The approach efficiently recognized 15 individual CpG loci differentially methylated in breast cancer tumor subtypes. We further identified novel subtype-specific epigenotypes that clearly demonstrate the differences in the methylation profiles of basal-like and human epidermal growth factor 2 (HER2)-overexpressing tumors.
Our results provide evidence that well-defined DNA methylation profiles enable breast cancer subtype prediction and support the utilization of this biomarker for prognostication and therapeutic stratification of patients with breast cancer.
PMCID: PMC3096970  PMID: 20920229
23.  Impact of Variation at the FTO Locus on Milk Fat Yield in Holstein Dairy Cattle 
PLoS ONE  2013;8(5):e63406.
This study explores the biological role of the Fat Mass and Obesity associated (FTO) gene locus on milk composition in German Holstein cattle. Since FTO controls energy homeostasis and expenditure and the FTO locus has repeatedly shown association with obesity in human studies, we tested FTO as a candidate gene in particular for milk fat yield, which represents a high amount of energy secreted during lactation. The study was performed on 2,402 bulls and 860 cows where dense milk composition data were available. Genetic information was taken from a 2 Mb region around FTO. Five SNPs and two haplotype blocks in a 725 kb region covering FTO and the neighboring genes RPGRIP1L, U6ATAC, and 5 S rRNA were associated with milk fat yield and also affected protein yield in the same direction. Interestingly, higher frequency SNP alleles and haplotypes within the FTO gene increased milk fat and protein yields by up to 2.8 and 2.2 kg per lactation, respectively, while the most frequent haplotype in the upstream block covering exon 1 of FTO to exon 15 of RPGRIP1L had opposite effects with lower fat and milk yield. Both haplotype blocks were also significant in cows. The loci accounted for about 1% of the corresponding trait variance in the population. The association signals not only provided evidence for at least two causative mutations in the FTO locus with a functional effect on milk but also milk protein yield. The pleiotropic effects suggest a biological function on the usage of energy resources and the control of energy balance rather than directly affecting fat and protein synthesis. The identified effect of the obesity gene locus on milk energy content suggests an impact on infant nutrition by breast feeding in humans.
PMCID: PMC3655180  PMID: 23691044
24.  FTO Polymorphisms Are Associated With Obesity but Not Diabetes Risk in Postmenopausal Women 
Obesity (Silver Spring, Md.)  2008;16(11):2472-2480.
The FTO gene was recently identified as a susceptibility locus for both obesity and type 2 diabetes by whole-genome association analyses of several European populations. We tested for an association between FTO risk alleles and obesity and diabetes in a well-characterized multiethnic cohort of postmenopausal women in the United States. We genotyped two most significantly associated single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) (rs9939609 and rs8050136) in intron 1 of FTO gene in a nested case–control study of 1,517 diabetes cases and 2,123 controls from the Women’s Health Initiative–Observational Study (WHI-OS). The allelic frequencies of either rs9939609 or rs8050136 differed widely across four ethnic groups. The frequency of the rare allele A of rs9939609 among controls was much lower in Asians/Pacific Islanders (17%) than in blacks (45%), whites (40%), and Hispanics (31%). We found significant associations of rs9939609 with BMI and waist circumference in white and Hispanic women, but not among black and Asian/Pacific Islander women. On average, each copy of the risk-allele A at rs9939609 was significantly associated with 0.45 kg/m2 increase in BMI (95% confidence interval (CI): 0.16–0.74; P = 0.004) and 0.97 cm increase in waist circumference (95% CI: 0.21–0.65; P = 0.0002). Similar results were observed for rs8050136. However, we found no significant genetic associations with diabetes risk, either within the full study sample or in any ethnic group. In conclusion, common genetic variants in the intron 1 of FTO gene may confer a modest susceptibility to obesity in an ethnicity-specific manner, but may be unlikely to contribute to a clinically significant diabetes risk.
PMCID: PMC2732012  PMID: 18787525
25.  The Dynamics of DNA Methylation Covariation Patterns in Carcinogenesis 
PLoS Computational Biology  2014;10(7):e1003709.
Recently it has been observed that cancer tissue is characterised by an increased variability in DNA methylation patterns. However, how the correlative patterns in genome-wide DNA methylation change during the carcinogenic progress has not yet been explored. Here we study genome-wide inter-CpG correlations in DNA methylation, in addition to single site variability, during cervical carcinogenesis. We demonstrate how the study of changes in DNA methylation covariation patterns across normal, intra-epithelial neoplasia and invasive cancer allows the identification of CpG sites that indicate the risk of neoplastic transformation in stages prior to neoplasia. Importantly, we show that the covariation in DNA methylation at these risk CpG loci is maximal immediately prior to the onset of cancer, supporting the view that high epigenetic diversity in normal cells increases the risk of cancer. Consistent with this, we observe that invasive cancers exhibit increased covariation in DNA methylation at the risk CpG sites relative to normal tissue, but lower levels relative to pre-cancerous lesions. We further show that the identified risk CpG sites undergo preferential DNA methylation changes in relation to human papilloma virus infection and age. Results are validated in independent data including prospectively collected samples prior to neoplastic transformation. Our data are consistent with a phase transition model of carcinogenesis, in which epigenetic diversity is maximal prior to the onset of cancer. The model and algorithm proposed here may allow, in future, network biomarkers predicting the risk of neoplastic transformation to be identified.
Author Summary
DNA methylation is a covalent modification of DNA which can regulate how active genes are. DNA methylation is altered at many genomic loci in cancer cells, leading to widespread functional disruption. Importantly, DNA methylation alterations across the genome are seen even in early carcinogenesis. Although the pattern of DNA methylation change during carcinogenesis has been studied at individual genomic loci, no study has yet analysed how these patterns change at a systems-level, specifically how do DNA methylation patterns at pairs of genomic sites change during disease progression. Doing so can shed light on how the epigenetic diversity of cell populations changes during the carcinogenic process. This study performs a systems-level analysis of the dynamic changes in DNA methylation correlation pattern during cervical carcinogenesis, demonstrating that epigenetic diversity is maximal just prior to the onset of cancer. Importantly, this supports the view that the risk of cancer development is closely related to an increase in epigenetic diversity in apparently healthy cells. In addition, the study provides a computational algorithm which successfully identifies the altered genomic sites confering the risk of cervical cancer.
PMCID: PMC4091688  PMID: 25010556

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