Sunlight exposure has been shown to alter DNA methylation patterns across several human cell-types, including T-lymphocytes. Since epigenetic changes establish gene expression profiles, changes in DNA methylation induced by sunlight exposure warrant investigation. The purpose of this study was to assess the effects of sunlight exposure on CD4+ T-cell methylation patterns on an epigenome-wide scale in a North American population of European origin (n=991). In addition, we investigated the genetic contribution to epigenetic variation (methylQTL). We used linear regression to test the associations between methylation scores at 461,281 cytosine-phosphate-guanine (CpG) sites and sunlight exposure, followed by a genome-wide association analysis (methylQTL) to test for associations between methylation at the top CpG locus and common genetic variants, assuming an additive genetic model. We observed an epigenome-wide significant association between sunlight exposure and methylation status at cg26930596 (p=9.2×10(-8)), a CpG site located in protein kinase C zeta (PRKCZ), a gene previously shown to be entrained by light. MethylQTL analysis resulted in significant associations between cg26930596 and two intergenic single nucleotide polymorphisms on chromosome 3, rs4574216 (p=1.5×10(-10)) and rs4405858 (p=1.9×10(-9)). These common genetic variants reside downstream of WWTR1, a transcriptional co-activator of PRKCZ. Associations observed in the North American population, however, did not replicate in an independent Mediterranean cohort. Our preliminary results support the role of sunlight exposure in epigenetic processes, and lay the groundwork for future studies of the molecular link between sunlight and physiologic processes such as tumorigenesis and metabolism.
Keywords: Epigenetics; methylation; protein kinase C; sunlight.