Background: DNA methylation has essential roles in transcriptional regulation, imprinting, X chromosome inactivation and other cellular processes, and aberrant CpG methylation is directly involved in the pathogenesis of human imprinting disorders and many cancers. To address the need for a quantitative and highly multiplexed bisulfite sequencing method with long read lengths for targeted CpG methylation analysis, we developed single-molecule real-time bisulfite sequencing (SMRT-BS).
Results: Optimized bisulfite conversion and PCR conditions enabled the amplification of DNA fragments up to ~1.5 kb, and subjecting overlapping 625-1491 bp amplicons to SMRT-BS indicated high reproducibility across all amplicon lengths (r=0.972) and low standard deviations (≤0.10) between individual CpG sites sequenced in triplicate. Higher variability in CpG methylation quantitation was correlated with reduced sequencing depth, particularly for intermediately methylated regions. SMRT-BS was validated by orthogonal bisulfite-based microarray (r=0.906; 42 CpG sites) and second generation sequencing (r=0.933; 174 CpG sites); however, longer SMRT-BS amplicons (>1.0 kb) had reduced, but very acceptable, correlation with both orthogonal methods (r=0.836-0.897 and r=0.892-0.927, respectively) compared to amplicons less than ~1.0 kb (r=0.940-0.951 and r=0.948-0.963, respectively). Multiplexing utility was assessed by simultaneously subjecting four distinct CpG island amplicons (702-866 bp; 325 CpGs) and 30 hematological malignancy cell lines to SMRT-BS (average depth of 110X), which identified a spectrum of highly quantitative methylation levels across all interrogated CpG sites and cell lines.
Conclusions: SMRT-BS is a novel, accurate and cost-effective targeted CpG methylation method that is amenable to a high degree of multiplexing with minimal clonal PCR artifacts. Increased sequencing depth is necessary when interrogating longer amplicons (>1.0 kb) and the previously reported bisulfite sequencing PCR bias towards unmethylated DNA should be considered when measuring intermediately methylated regions. Coupled with an optimized bisulfite PCR protocol, SMRT-BS is capable of interrogating ~1.5 kb amplicons, which theoretically can cover ~91% of CpG islands in the human genome.