Background Gestational age at birth strongly predicts neonatal, adolescent and adult morbidity and mortality through mostly unknown mechanisms. Identification of specific genes that are undergoing regulatory change prior to birth, such as through changes in DNA methylation, would increase our understanding of developmental changes occurring during the third trimester and consequences of pre-term birth (PTB).
Methods We performed a genome-wide analysis of DNA methylation (using microarrays, specifically CHARM 2.0) in 141 newborns collected in Baltimore, MD, using novel statistical methodology to identify genomic regions associated with gestational age at birth. Bisulphite pyrosequencing was used to validate significant differentially methylated regions (DMRs), and real-time PCR was performed to assess functional significance of differential methylation in a subset of newborns.
Results We identified three DMRs at genome-wide significance levels adjacent to the NFIX, RAPGEF2 and MSRB3 genes. All three regions were validated by pyrosequencing, and RAGPEF2 also showed an inverse correlation between DNA methylation levels and gene expression levels. Although the three DMRs appear very dynamic with gestational age in our newborn sample, adult DNA methylation levels at these regions are stable and of equal or greater magnitude than the oldest neonate, directionally consistent with the gestational age results.
Conclusions We have identified three differentially methylated regions associated with gestational age at birth. All three nearby genes play important roles in the development of several organs, including skeletal muscle, brain and haematopoietic system. Therefore, they may provide initial insight into the basis of PTB's negative health outcomes. The genome-wide custom DNA methylation array technology and novel statistical methods employed in this study could constitute a model for epidemiologic studies of epigenetic variation.