Background: DNA methylation has been recognized as a key mechanism in cell differentiation. Various studies have compared tissues to characterize epigenetically regulated genomic regions, but due to differences in study design and focus there still is no consensus as to the annotation of genomic regions predominantly involved in tissue-specific methylation. We used a new algorithm to identify and annotate tissue-specific differentially methylated regions (tDMRs) from Illumina 450k chip data for four peripheral tissues (blood, saliva, buccal swabs and hair follicles) and six internal tissues (liver, muscle, pancreas, subcutaneous fat, omentum and spleen with matched blood samples).
Results: The majority of tDMRs, in both relative and absolute terms, occurred in CpG-poor regions. Further analysis revealed that these regions were associated with alternative transcription events (alternative first exons, mutually exclusive exons and cassette exons). Only a minority of tDMRs mapped to gene-body CpG islands (13%) or CpG islands shores (25%) suggesting a less prominent role for these regions than indicated previously. Implementation of ENCODE annotations showed enrichment of tDMRs in DNase hypersensitive sites and transcription factor binding sites. Despite the predominance of tissue differences, inter-individual differences in DNA methylation in internal tissues were correlated with those for blood for a subset of CpG sites in a locus- and tissue-specific manner.
Conclusions: We conclude that tDMRs preferentially occur in CpG-poor regions and are associated with alternative transcription. Furthermore, our data suggest the utility of creating an atlas cataloguing variably methylated regions in internal tissues that correlate to DNA methylation measured in easy accessible peripheral tissues.