DNA methylation is an essential epigenetic mark whose role in gene regulation and its dependency on genomic sequence and environment are not fully understood. In this study we provide novel insights into the mechanistic relationships between genetic variation, DNA methylation and transcriptome sequencing data in three different cell-types of the GenCord human population cohort. We find that the association between DNA methylation and gene expression variation among individuals are likely due to different mechanisms from those establishing methylation-expression patterns during differentiation. Furthermore, cell-type differential DNA methylation may delineate a platform in which local inter-individual changes may respond to or act in gene regulation. We show that unlike genetic regulatory variation, DNA methylation alone does not significantly drive allele specific expression. Finally, inferred mechanistic relationships using genetic variation as well as correlations with TF abundance reveal both a passive and active role of DNA methylation to regulatory interactions influencing gene expression.
Variations occur throughout our genome. These variations can cause genes to be expressed (switched on) in slightly different ways among individuals. Moreover, the same gene can also be expressed in different ways in different cells within an individual. A third level of variation is supplied by epigenetic markers: these are molecules that bind to the DNA at specific points and can have profound effects on the expression of nearby genes. One such epigenetic marker is the addition of a methyl group to a cytosine base, a process that is known as DNA methylation.
DNA methylation usually happens when a cytosine base is next to a guanine base, forming a CpG site. In mammals, most CpG sites have methyl groups attached, although regions with a lot of CpG sites (called CpG islands) are mostly unmethylated. Initial studies suggested that methylation prevented particular genes from being expressed, but more recent work has indicated that methylation can be associated with both reduced and increased expression of genes. Moreover, it is not clear if this association is active (i.e., changes in methylation drive changes in gene expression) or passive (DNA methylation is the result of gene regulation).
Now, Gutierrez-Arcelus et al. have carried out a large-scale study to clarify the relationships between three different types of gene-related variations among individuals. They extracted fibroblasts, T-cells and lymphoblastoid cells from the umbilical cords of 204 babies, and analysed them for variations in DNA sequence, gene expression and DNA methylation. Their results show that the associations between the three are more complex than was previously thought.
Gutierrez-Arcelus et al. show that the mechanisms that control the association between the variations in DNA methylation and gene expression in individuals are likely to be different to those that are responsible for the establishment of methylation patterns during the process of cell differentiation. They also find that the association between DNA methylation and gene expression can be either active or passive, and can depend on the context in which they occur in our genome. Finally, where the two copies or alleles of a gene are not equally expressed in a given cell, the difference in expression is primarily regulated by DNA sequence variation, with DNA methylation having little or no role on its own. Equally complex interactions and effects are expected in further studies of genetic and epigenetic variation.