DNA methylation may contribute to the etiology of complex genetic disorders through its impact on genome integrity and gene expression; it is modulated by DNA-sequence variants, named methylation quantitative trait loci (meQTLs). Most meQTLs influence methylation of a few CpG dinucleotides within short genomic regions (<3 kb). Here, we identified a layered genetic control of DNA methylation at numerous CpGs across a long 300 kb genomic region. This control involved a single long-range meQTL and multiple local meQTLs. The long-range meQTL explained up to 75% of variance in methylation of CpGs located over extended areas of the 300 kb region. The meQTL was identified in four samples (P = 2.8 × 10(-17), 3.1 × 10(-31), 4.0 × 10(-71) and 5.2 × 10(-199)), comprising a total of 2796 individuals. The long-range meQTL was strongly associated not only with DNA methylation but also with mRNA expression of several genes within the 300 kb region (P = 7.1 × 10(-18)-1.0 × 10(-123)). The associations of the meQTL with gene expression became attenuated when adjusted for DNA methylation (causal inference test: P = 2.4 × 10(-13)-7.1 × 10(-20)), indicating coordinated regulation of DNA methylation and gene expression. Further, the long-range meQTL was found to be in linkage disequilibrium with the most replicated locus of multiple sclerosis, a disease affecting primarily the brain white matter. In middle-aged adults free of the disease, we observed that the risk allele was associated with subtle structural properties of the brain white matter found in multiple sclerosis (P = 0.02). In summary, we identified a long-range meQTL that controls methylation and expression of several genes and may be involved in increasing brain vulnerability to multiple sclerosis.
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