Combined genetic and epigenetic analysis to identify early life determinants of complex phenotype
AuthorMansell, Toby Edward
Document TypePhD thesis
Access StatusThis item is embargoed and will be available on 2022-03-24.
© 2019 Toby Edward Mansell
There is now considerable evidence indicating that risk of many complex diseases in adulthood may be influenced by exposure to environmental exposures in utero. A growing number of studies suggest epigenetic markers, including DNA methylation, are involved in this process. Understanding how DNA methylation is impacted by pregnancy exposures, and related to later health, may both contribute to unravelling the aetiology of complex disease risk in later life and provide a potential early-life biomarker for risk prediction. However, current evidence is limited. There has been a predominance of small, poorly powered studies, failure to consider the effects of genetic variation, and limited replication of previous findings. In addition, previous studies investigating the relationship between DNA methylation and offspring health have been primarily cross-sectional. For these reasons, I investigated the associations between pregnancy exposures (in particular, maternal smoking, nutrition and metabolic health, psychosocial stress, and adverse pregnancy conditions), birth outcomes, and offspring blood DNA methylation of the insulin-like growth factor 2 (IGF2) and H19, hypoxia-inducible factor 3A (HIF3A), leptin (LEP) genes. I also considered how genetic variation impacted on these associations. I then investigated the longitudinal relationship between early life methylation and anthropometry, as well as the association between early life methylation and later childhood measures of weight, adiposity, and cardiovascular health. To do this, the large, population-based longitudinal Barwon Infant Study pre-birth cohort (n=1,074) was used, with clinical and questionnaire measures from 28 weeks pregnancy, birth, 12 months post-birth and 4 years post-birth time points. DNA methylation of candidate regions was measured using the Sequenom EpiTyper mass-spectrometry platform in cord (birth) and peripheral (12-month) blood. Infant genetic variation in and near the candidate genes was considered. Infant adiposity was assessed as sum of triceps and subscapular skinfold thicknesses in infancy, and with DEXA scanning at 4 years of age. We found evidence that exposure to maternal psychosocial stress, gestational diabetes, and pre-eclampsia was associated with differences in offspring methylation at the candidate regions, as was infant sex. Genetic variation showed strong effects on DNA methylation levels, with some evidence for the associations of pre-eclampsia and infant adiposity with LEP methylation differing by infant genotype. Early life methylation of HIF3A and LEP showed modest associations with four-year blood pressure and BMI, respectively. While these associations persisted with adjustment for potential confounding factors, they explained relatively little variance in the four-year phenotypes compared to traditional predictors, such as weight. These findings suggest that offspring DNA methylation of these candidate genes involved in regulation of growth and metabolism are sensitive to several environmental exposures and genetic factors. While there is modest evidence for methylation in infant blood associating with later phenotypes, methylation of these genes appears unlikely to have useful predictive utility in isolation. This study is the first to perform early life longitudinal analysis to investigate the association between anthropometry and methylation in infancy. It is also the first to report evidence of earlier methylation associating with later cardiovascular phenotypes. However, as gene expression data was not available, the functional consequences of the altered methylation observed in blood is unclear. Further work is required to replicate these findings in independent cohorts, to determine the nature of expression of these genes in blood, and to investigate if the relationship between early life methylation and later health persists into adulthood.
Keywordsepigenetics; genetics; DNA methylation; complex disease; non-communicable disease; fetal programming; DOHaD; cord blood; pregnancy exposures; SNPs; LEP; leptin; IGF2; H19; HIF3A; gestational diabetes; stress; preeclampsia
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