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A Genomic Atlas of Systemic Interindividual Epigenetic Variation in Humans (GTEx)

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Methylation of cytosines in CpG dinucleotides is an epigenetic mechanism with essential roles in mammalian development. To explore its functions in cellular differentiation, unbiased analysis of CpG methylation by whole genome bisulfite sequencing (WGBS) has been used to characterize epigenetic differences among different human tissues and cell types. Meanwhile, human interindividual variation in DNA methylation that is not cell-type specific has attracted relatively little attention. Systemic interindividual epigenetic variation is important, however, because like genetic variation it is a potential determinant of phenotypic variation and can be assessed in any easily obtainable DNA sample. Since systemic epigenetic variants originate in the preimplantation embryo, their establishment can be influenced by periconceptional environment, and potentially provide information about lifetime risks relevant to global health, obesity, and cancer.

We elucidated systemic interindividual variation in CpG methylation in the human genome. We studied brain, heart, and thyroid tissues (representing all three germ layer lineages) from each of 10 donors in the NIH Gene-Tissue Expression (GTEx) project. We performed deep whole genome bisulfite sequencing for these 30 samples, achieving a sequencing depth of over 50x coverage per sample. We identified 9,926 correlated regions of systemic interindividual variation (CoRSIVs). These regions, comprising just 0.1% of the human genome, often correlate with one another over long genomic distances, are associated with transposable elements and subtelomeric regions, conserved across various human ethnic groups, and particularly sensitive to periconceptional environment. While genetic variation appears to influence methylation at most CoRSIVs, many show no evidence of genetic influence, suggestive of 'pure' epigenetic variation. At CoRSIVs, interindividual variation in DNA methylation in an easily biopsied tissue predicts expression in other tissues, and genes associated with these loci are implicated in a range of human disorders. In addition to charting a previously unrecognized molecular level of human individuality, this atlas of human CoRSIVs provides a resource for future population-based investigations into how interindividual epigenetic variation modulates risk of disease.


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