A study of DNA methylation and age

This 2014 Finnish human study compared and contrasted the DNA methylation levels of young adults with people age 90:

“We identified 8540 high-confidence CpG [cytosine and guanine separated by only one phosphate link] sites that show a large difference in methylation levels between nonagenarians and young controls and that present high statistical significance in a regression model adjusted for the leukocyte proportion.

The majority of frequently reported CpG sites are hypermethylated with increasing age.

Ageing-associated hypermethylation is concentrated in genes associated with developmental processes as well as DNA-binding and transcription of genes, whereas hypomethylation is not enriched among a specific set of genes.

The largest percentage of the variation in our methylation data was associated with the proportions of different leukocyte subtypes.

We found that only a minority of ageing-associated CpG sites showed an association between methylation and expression levels. Furthermore, only a minority of these genes have been identified as differentially expressed between nonagenarians and young individuals.”

The finding concerning:

“Ageing-associated hypermethylation is concentrated in genes associated with developmental processes as well as DNA-binding and transcription of genes”

was in concert with a referenced 2013 review Aging is not programmed that stated:

“Aging is not and cannot be programmed. Instead, aging is a continuation of developmental growth, driven by genetic pathways.

Aging is a shadow. Its shape is determined by the developmental growth.

Genetic programs determine developmental growth and the onset of reproduction. When these programs are completed, they are not switched off.

Aging has no purpose (neither for individuals nor for group), no intention. Nature does not select for quasi-programs. It selects for robust developmental growth.

Whereas the growth of the body is programmed, the emergence of the shadow is not. Natural selection cannot eliminate the shadow without hurting the “body”.”


The researchers made several points relating the current study and other epigenetic studies.

Regarding DNA methylation and gene expression:

“Due to the methods applied in the present study, not all the effects of DNA methylation on gene expression could be detected; this limitation is also true for previously reported results.

The textbook case of DNA methylation regulating gene expression (the methylation of a promoter and silencing of a gene) remains undetected in many cases because in an array analysis, an unexpressed gene shows no signal that can be distinguished from background and is therefore typically omitted from the analysis.”

Regarding biological age and chronological age:

“It remains to be investigated whether these [CpG] sites are only associated with chronological age or if there are also associations with phenotypic changes related to (successful) ageing.

If these frequently reported sites are only markers of chronological age, markers of biological age are yet to be identified.”

Regarding the rapid progression of technology used in epigenetic studies, they noted several times how what they used was significantly improved over pre-2014 technologies with statements such as:

“Global hypomethylation has been associated with an increasing risk of frailty, but very few other associations between phenotype and DNA methylation have been reported. However, this may be due to technical concerns, as the study by Bell et al. was performed with the 27K array, which almost exclusively contains promoter-associated probes that are not methylated at baseline and can therefore primarily acquire hypermethylation. Phenotype association studies performed with the 450K array or using sequencing techniques are necessary to clarify if hypomethylation is associated with typical ageing-associated phenotypes.”

Compare that with the limitations of the same 450K array acknowledged in A human study of changes in gene expression 2015 study:

“Other techniques—whole-genome bisulfite sequencing and methylC-capture (MCC) sequencing, for example—have definite technical advantages (higher resolution and no CpG island selection bias).”

http://www.biomedcentral.com/1471-2164/16/179 “Ageing-associated changes in the human DNA methylome: genomic locations and effects on gene expression”

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