The epigenetic clock theory of aging

My 400th blog post curates a 2018 US/UK paper by two of the coauthors of Using an epigenetic clock to distinguish cellular aging from senescence. The authors reviewed the current state of epigenetic clock research, and proposed a new theory of aging:

“The proposed epigenetic clock theory of ageing views biological ageing as an unintended consequence of both developmental programmes and maintenance programmes, the molecular footprints of which give rise to DNAm [DNA methylation] age estimators.

It is best to interpret epigenetic age estimates as a higher-order property of a large number of CpGs much in the same way that the temperature of a gas is a higher-order property that reflects the average kinetic energy of the underlying molecules. This interpretation does not imply that DNAm age simply measures entropy across the entire genome.

To date, the most effective in vitro intervention against epigenetic ageing is achieved through expression of Yamanaka factors, which convert somatic cells into pluripotent stem cells, thereby completely resetting the epigenetic clock. In vivo, haematopoietic stem cell therapy resets the epigenetic age of blood of the recipient to that of the donor.

Future epidemiological studies should consider other sources of DNA (for example, buccal cells), because more powerful estimates of organismal age can be obtained by evaluating multiple tissues..other types of epigenetic modifications such as adenine methylation or histone modifications may lend themselves for developing epigenetic age estimators.”


I’ve previously curated four other papers which were referenced in this review:


The challenge is: do you want your quality of life to be under or over this curve?

What are you doing to reverse epigenetic processes and realize what you want? Do you have ideas and/or behaviors that interfere with taking constructive actions to change your phenotype?

If you aren’t doing anything, are you honest with yourself about the personal roots of beliefs in fate/feelings of helplessness? Do beliefs in technological or divine interventions provide justifications for inactions?

https://www.nature.com/articles/s41576-018-0004-3 “DNA methylation-based biomarkers and the epigenetic clock theory of ageing” (not freely available)

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Genomic imprinting and growth

This 2018 UK paper reviewed genomic imprinting:

“Since their discovery nearly 30 years ago, imprinted genes have been a paradigm for exploring the epigenetic control of gene expression. Moreover, their roles in early life growth and placentation are undisputed.

However, it is becoming increasingly clear that imprinted gene function has a wider role in maternal physiology during reproduction – both by modulating fetal and placental endocrine products that signal to alter maternal energy homeostasis, and by altering maternal energetic set points, thus producing downstream actions on nutrient provisioning.”

“Imprinted genes in the conceptus produce products that alter maternal resource allocation by:

  1. altering the transport capacity of the placenta;
  2. increasing fetal demand for resources by their action on the intrinsic growth rate; and
  3. signalling to the mother by the production of fetal/placental hormones that modify maternal metabolism.”

Other studies/reviews I’ve curated that covered genomic imprinting are:

http://jeb.biologists.org/content/jexbio/221/Suppl_1/jeb164517.full.pdf “Genomic imprinting, growth and maternal-fetal interactions”


This post has somehow become a target for spammers, and I’ve disabled comments. Readers can comment on other posts and indicate that they want their comment to apply here, and I’ll re-enable comments.

Maternal obesity causes fetal liver damage

This 2018 US baboon study was on fetal effects from maternal obesity before and during pregnancy:

“Approximately 64% of women of childbearing age in the USA [are] overweight or obese..The baboon is a well-characterized animal model sharing many physiological, metabolic, and genetic characteristics with humans allowing direct translation of findings to human pregnancy.

Our study shows that fetal exposure to the MO [maternal obesity] intrauterine environment results in dysregulation of fetal hepatic genes central to metabolism.

These findings were further supported by identification of miRNAs that were inversely expressed with key genes in these pathways..suggest important early molecular mechanisms by which MO programs fetal hepatic lipid metabolism.

Future studies are required in MO post-natal offspring to determine the extent to which the fetal phenotype persists, and the degree to which this increases offspring risk of cardiometabolic disorders in later life.”


The study provided many measurements that may be relevant to humans. Other consequential measurements were missing that may have made the study’s findings even more applicable to humans:

  • No placental measurements other than weight. The organ through which the fetus received its nutrients, signaled its needs, modulated its growth rate, and developed its organs, was only measured by weight?
  • No other epigenetic analyses such as DNA methylation and histone modifications.

Were these omitted due to limited resources?

http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1113/JP275422/pdf “Primate fetal hepatic responses to maternal obesity: epigenetic signalling pathways and lipid accumulation”

Viruses target epigenetic processes

This 2018 Colorado review subject was general and specific ways viruses target epigenetic processes:

“We describe viral mechanisms and virus–host interactions by which DNA tumor viruses regulate host DNA methylation to evade antiviral immunity.

It is well known that most endogenous retroviruses and retrotransposons in the human genome are inactivated by DNA hypermethylation..In addition to endogenous retroviruses, the genomes of DNA viruses, such as human papillomavirus (HPV), herpes simplex virus 1 (HSV-1), adenovirus, and hepatitis B virus (HBV), are also frequently methylated and silenced in infected cells.

A recently described mechanism for viruses to epigenetically subvert host immunity is repression of immune-related gene expression by induction of DNA hypermethylation..Some host genes are not silenced simply through promoter hypermethylation or histone deacetylation alone, and therefore, viruses may have evolved mechanisms to ensure host gene downregulation through multiple epigenetic modifications.”

http://www.mdpi.com/1999-4915/10/2/82/htm “DNA Tumor Virus Regulation of Host DNA Methylation and Its Implications for Immune Evasion and Oncogenesis”


A second 2018 New York study focused on the Zika virus and DNA methylation:

“We studied the impact of ZIKV infection on the DNA methylation pattern across the entire genome in selected neural cell types. The virus unexpectedly alters the DNA methylome of neural progenitors, astrocytes, and differentiated neurons at genes that have been implicated in the pathogenesis of a number of brain disorders.

It remains open, however, whether the methylation changes come first or whether the viral infection dysregulates epigenetic regulatory genes prior to any epigenetic shift.”

http://msystems.asm.org/content/3/1/e00219-17 “Zika Virus Alters DNA Methylation of Neural Genes in an Organoid Model of the Developing Human Brain”

Non-CpG DNA methylation

This 2017 Korean review compared and contrasted CpG and non-CpG DNA methylation:

“Non-CpG methylation is restricted to specific cell types, such as pluripotent stem cells, oocytes, neurons, and glial cells..accumulation of methylation at non-CpG sites and CpG sites in neurons seems to be involved in development and disease etiology.

Non-CpG methylation is established during postnatal development of the hippocampus and its levels increase over time. Similarly, non-CpG methylation is scarcely detected in human fetal frontal cortex, but is dramatically increased in later life. This increase in non-CpG methylation occurs simultaneously with synaptic development and increases in synaptic density.

In contrast, CpG methylation occurs during early development and does not increase over time.

Neurons have considerably higher levels of non-CpG methylation than glial cells..The human male ES [embryonic stem] cell line (H1) is more highly methylated than the female ES cell line (H9).

Among the different types of non-CpG methylation (CpA [adenosine], CpT [thymine], and CpC), methylation is most common at CpA sites. For instance, in human iPS [induced pluripotent stem] cells, 5mCs are found in approximately 68.31%, 7.81%, 1.99%, and 1.05% of CpG, CpA, CpT, and CpC sites, respectively.”


The reviewers’ referenced statement:

“..CpG methylation occurs during early development and does not increase over time.”

was presented outside of its context. The 2013 cited source’s statement was restricted to selected points in the rodent hippocampus:

“Consistent with a recent study of the cortex, time-course analyses revealed that CpH [non-CpG] methylation at the selected loci was established during postnatal development of the hippocampus and was then present throughout life, whereas CpG methylation was established during early development. Maturing mouse hippocampal neurons in vitro also showed a gradual increase in CpH, but not CpG, methylation over time.”

Epigenetic study methodologies improved in 2017 had more information on CpA methylation.

http://www.mdpi.com/2073-4425/8/6/148/htm “CpG and Non-CpG Methylation in Epigenetic Gene Regulation and Brain Function”

Make consequential measurements in epigenetic studies

The subject of this 2017 Spanish review was human placental epigenetic changes:

“39 papers assessing human placental epigenetic signatures in association with either

  • (i) psychosocial stress,
  • (ii) maternal psychopathology,
  • (iii) maternal smoking during pregnancy, and
  • (iv) exposure to environmental pollutants,

were identified.

Their findings revealed placental tissue as a unique source of epigenetic variability that does not correlate with epigenetic patterns observed in maternal or newborn blood.

Each study’s confounders were summarized by a column in Table 1. Some of the reviewers’ comments included:

“33 out of 39 papers reviewed (85%) reported significant associations between either placental DNA methylation or placental miRNA expression and exposure to any of the risk factors assessed. However, the methodological heterogeneity present throughout the studies reviewed does not allow meta-analytic exploration of reported findings.

Heterogeneity regarding the origin of biological tissues analyzed confounds the replicability and validity of reported findings and their potential synthesis.”


Sponsors and researchers really have to take their work seriously if the developmental origins of health and disease hypothesis can advance to a well-evidenced theory. Study designers should:

  1. Sample consequential dimensions. “There were no studies examining histone modifications.” Why were there no human studies in this important category of epigenetic changes in the placenta, the “barrier protecting the fetus”?
  2. Correct methodological deficiencies in advance. Eliminate insufficiencies like “Once collected, processing and storage of placental samples also differed across studies and was not reported in all of them.”
  3. Stop using convenient but non-etiologic proxy assays such as global methylation. How can a study advance the DOHaD hypothesis if everyone knows ahead of time that its outcome will be yet another finding that epigenetic changes “are associated with” non-causal factors?
  4. Forget about non-biological measurements like educational attainment per Does a societal mandate cause DNA methylation?.

Every human alive today has observable lasting epigenetic effects caused by environmental factors during the earliest parts of our lives. Isn’t this sufficient rationale to expect serious efforts by research sponsors and designers?

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0892036217301769 “The impact of prenatal insults on the human placental epigenome: A systematic review” (click the Download PDF link to read the paper)

Epigenetics research and evolution

This 2017 UK essay was a longish review of how epigenetics and other research has informed evolutionary theory:

“There are several processes by which directed evolutionary change occurs—targeted mutation, gene transposition, epigenetics, cultural change, niche construction and adaptation.

Evolution is an ongoing set of iterative interactions between organisms and the environment..Directionality is introduced by the agency of organisms themselves.”

A few takeaway items concerned:

“It is of course the functional phenotype that is ‘seen’ by natural selection. DNA sequences are not directly available for selection other than through their functional consequences.

..the comparative failure of genome-wide association studies to reveal very much about the genetic origins of health and disease. This is one of the most important empirical findings arising from genome sequencing.

Environmental epigenetic impacts on biology and disease include:

  • Worldwide differences in regional disease frequencies
  • Low frequency of genetic component of disease as determined with genome wide association studies (GWAS)
  • Dramatic increases in disease frequencies over past decades
  • Identical twins with variable and discordant disease frequency
  • Environmental exposures associated with disease
  • Regional differences and rapid induction events in evolution

The above list was from the cited 2016 review “Developmental origins of epigenetic transgenerational inheritance” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4933018


I was especially interested in the points about behavior’s role in evolution:

“Differential mutation rates are not essential to enable organisms to guide their own evolution.

If organisms have agency and, within obvious limits, can choose their lifestyles, and if these lifestyles result in inheritable epigenetic changes, then it follows that organisms can at least partially make choices that can have long-term evolutionary impact.”

These discussions provided support for the central question of The PRice “equation” for individually evolving: Which equation describes your life?:

“Applying the “How does a phenotype influence its own change?” question to a person:

How can a person remedy their undesirable traits – many of which are from their ancestral phenotype – and acquire desirable traits?”

http://www.mdpi.com/2079-7737/6/4/47/htm “Was the Watchmaker Blind? Or Was She One-Eyed?”