The primary causes of individual differences in DNA methylation are environmental factors

This 2015 Canadian human study by McGill researchers found:

“Differential methylation is primarily non-genetic in origin, with non-shared environment accounting for most of the variance. These non-genetic effects are mainly tissue-specific.

The full scope of environmental variation remains underappreciated.”

The researchers developed their findings using adipose and blood samples from monozygotic and dizygotic twins in the UK Adult Twin registry of Caucasian females aged 40 to 87. The goal of their techniques was to develop:

“A guide to design targeted panels for cost-effective and comprehensive evaluation of only variable methylation in investigated tissues.”

The researchers used whole-genome bisulfite sequencing (WGBS) because:

“Most genome-wide methylation studies of inter-individual variation to date have been biased towards promoter and CpG-dense regions.

A main limitation with studies using the Illumina 450 K array is that the platform only covers ~1.5 % of overall genomic CpGs, which are biased towards promoters and strongly underrepresented in distal regulatory elements, i.e., enhancers.

WGBS offers single-site resolution CpG methylation interrogation at full genomic coverage.

Another advantage of WGBS is its ability to access patterns of non-CpG methylation.”

The researchers provided several examples of how environmental exposure impacted CpG methylation. In one, a pair of monozygotic twins who had both smoked for over 40 years was compared with a monozygotic pair who hadn’t smoked for 20 years. Previous studies’ findings were replicated both as to the patterns of methylation and to methylation of a specific CpG site “involved in asthma with interaction of environmental tobacco smoke.” “Population whole-genome bisulfite sequencing across two tissues highlights the environment as the principal source of human methylome variation”

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