Characterizing genetic and environmental influences on variable DNA methylation using monozygotic and dizygotic twins

Eilis Hannon, Olivia Knox, Karen Sugden, Joe Burrage, Chloe Chung Yi Wong, Daniel Belsky, David L. Corcoran, Louise Arseneault, Terrie Edith Moffitt, Avshalom Caspi, Jonathan Mill

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115 Citations (Scopus)
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Variation in DNA methylation is being increasingly associated with health and disease outcomes. Although DNA methylation is hypothesized to be a mechanism by which both genetic and non-genetic factors can influence the regulation of gene expression, little is known about the extent to which DNA methylation at specific sites is influenced by heritable as well as environmental factors. We quantified DNA methylation in whole blood at age 18 in a birth cohort of 1,464 individuals comprising 426 monozygotic (MZ) and 306 same-sex dizygotic (DZ) twin pairs. Site-specific levels of DNA methylation were more strongly correlated across the genome between MZ than DZ twins. Structural equation models revealed that although the average contribution of additive genetic influences on DNA methylation across the genome was relatively low, it was notably elevated at the highly variable sites characterized by intermediate levels of DNAm that are most relevant for epigenetic epidemiology. Sites at which variable DNA methylation was most influenced by genetic factors were significantly enriched for DNA methylation quantitative trait loci (mQTL) effects, and overlapped with sites where inter-individual variation correlates across tissues. Finally, we show that DNA methylation at sites robustly associated with environmental exposures such as tobacco smoking and obesity is also influenced by additive genetic effects, highlighting the need to control for genetic background in analyses of exposure-associated DNA methylation differences. Estimates of the contribution of genetic and environmental influences to DNA methylation at all sites profiled in this study are available as a resource for the research community (
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere1007544
JournalPLoS genetics
Issue number8
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 6 Jul 2018


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