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Cross-tissue patterns of DNA hypomethylation reveal genetically distinct histories of cell development


Scott TJTimothy J , Hansen TJTyler J , McArthur EEvonne , Hodges EEmily . BMC genomics. 2023 10 19; 24(1). 623


BACKGROUND: Establishment of DNA methylation (DNAme) patterns is essential for balanced multi-lineage cellular differentiation, but exactly how these patterns drive cellular phenotypes is unclear. While > 80% of CpG sites are stably methylated, tens of thousands of discrete CpG loci form hypomethylated regions (HMRs). Because they lack DNAme, HMRs are considered transcriptionally permissive, but not all HMRs actively regulate genes. Unlike promoter HMRs, a subset of non-coding HMRs is cell type-specific and enriched for tissue-specific gene regulatory functions. Our data further argues not only that HMR establishment is an important step in enforcing cell identity, but also that cross-cell type and spatial HMR patterns are functionally informative of gene regulation.

RESULTS: To understand the significance of non-coding HMRs, we systematically dissected HMR patterns across diverse human cell types and developmental timepoints, including embryonic, fetal, and adult tissues. Unsupervised clustering of 126,104 distinct HMRs revealed that levels of HMR specificity reflects a developmental hierarchy supported by enrichment of stage-specific transcription factors and gene ontologies. Using a pseudo-time course of development from embryonic stem cells to adult stem and mature hematopoietic cells, we find that most HMRs observed in differentiated cells (~ 60%) are established at early developmental stages and accumulate as development progresses. HMRs that arise during differentiation frequently (~ 35%) establish near existing HMRs (≤ 6 kb away), leading to the formation of HMR clusters associated with stronger enhancer activity. Using SNP-based partitioned heritability from GWAS summary statistics across diverse traits and clinical lab values, we discovered that genetic contribution to trait heritability is enriched within HMRs. Moreover, the contribution of heritability to cell-relevant traits increases with both increasing HMR specificity and HMR clustering, supporting the role of distinct HMR subsets in regulating normal cell function.

CONCLUSIONS: Our results demonstrate that the entire HMR repertoire within a cell-type, rather than just the cell type-specific HMRs, stores information that is key to understanding and predicting cellular phenotypes. Ultimately, these data provide novel insights into how DNA hypo-methylation provides genetically distinct historical records of a cell’s journey through development, highlighting HMRs as functionally distinct from other epigenomic annotations.