Local CpG density affects the trajectory and variance of age-associated DNA methylation changes

Higham, Jonathan and Kerr, Lyndsay and Zhang, Qian and Walker, Rosie M. and Harris, Sarah E. and Howard, David M. and Hawkins, Emma L. and Sandu, Anca-Larisa and Steele, J. Douglas and Waiter, Gordon D. and Murray, Alison D. and Evans, Kathryn L. and McIntosh, Andrew M. and Visscher, Peter M. and Deary, Ian J. and Cox, Simon R. and Sproul, Duncan (2022) Local CpG density affects the trajectory and variance of age-associated DNA methylation changes. Genome Biology, 23. 216. ISSN 1474-760X (https://doi.org/10.1186/s13059-022-02787-8)

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Background: DNA methylation is an epigenetic mark associated with the repression of gene promoters. Its pattern in the genome is disrupted with age and these changes can be used to statistically predict age with epigenetic clocks. Altered rates of aging inferred from these clocks are observed in human disease. However, the molecular mechanisms underpinning age-associated DNA methylation changes remain unknown. Local DNA sequence can program steady-state DNA methylation levels, but how it influences age-associated methylation changes is unknown. Results: We analyze longitudinal human DNA methylation trajectories at 345,895 CpGs from 600 individuals aged between 67 and 80 to understand the factors responsible for age-associated epigenetic changes at individual CpGs. We show that changes in methylation with age occur at 182,760 loci largely independently of variation in cell type proportions. These changes are especially apparent at 8322 low CpG density loci. Using SNP data from the same individuals, we demonstrate that methylation trajectories are affected by local sequence polymorphisms at 1487 low CpG density loci. More generally, we find that low CpG density regions are particularly prone to change and do so variably between individuals in people aged over 65. This differs from the behavior of these regions in younger individuals where they predominantly lose methylation. Conclusions: Our results, which we reproduce in two independent groups of individuals, demonstrate that local DNA sequence influences age-associated DNA methylation changes in humans in vivo. We suggest that this occurs because interactions between CpGs reinforce maintenance of methylation patterns in CpG dense regions.