Strong Components of Epigenetic Memory in Cultured Human Fibroblasts Related to Site of Origin and Donor Age

PLoS Genet. 2016 Feb 25;12(2):e1005819. doi: 10.1371/journal.pgen.1005819. eCollection 2016 Feb.


Differentiating pluripotent cells from fibroblast progenitors is a potentially transformative tool in personalized medicine. We previously identified relatively greater success culturing dura-derived fibroblasts than scalp-derived fibroblasts from postmortem tissue. We hypothesized that these differences in culture success were related to epigenetic differences between the cultured fibroblasts by sampling location, and therefore generated genome-wide DNA methylation and transcriptome data on 11 intrinsically matched pairs of dural and scalp fibroblasts from donors across the lifespan (infant to 85 years). While these cultured fibroblasts were several generations removed from the primary tissue and morphologically indistinguishable, we found widespread epigenetic differences by sampling location at the single CpG (N = 101,989), region (N = 697), "block" (N = 243), and global spatial scales suggesting a strong epigenetic memory of original fibroblast location. Furthermore, many of these epigenetic differences manifested in the transcriptome, particularly at the region-level. We further identified 7,265 CpGs and 11 regions showing significant epigenetic memory related to the age of the donor, as well as an overall increased epigenetic variability, preferentially in scalp-derived fibroblasts-83% of loci were more variable in scalp, hypothesized to result from cumulative exposure to environmental stimuli in the primary tissue. By integrating publicly available DNA methylation datasets on individual cell populations in blood and brain, we identified significantly increased inter-individual variability in our scalp- and other skin-derived fibroblasts on a similar scale as epigenetic differences between different lineages of blood cells. Lastly, these epigenetic differences did not appear to be driven by somatic mutation--while we identified 64 probable de-novo variants across the 11 subjects, there was no association between mutation burden and age of the donor (p = 0.71). These results depict a strong component of epigenetic memory in cell culture from primary tissue, even after several generations of daughter cells, related to cell state and donor age.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Age Factors
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Cells, Cultured
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • CpG Islands
  • DNA Methylation
  • Epigenesis, Genetic*
  • Fibroblasts / cytology*
  • Fibroblasts / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Middle Aged
  • Polymorphism, Single Nucleotide
  • Scalp / cytology
  • Transcriptome
  • Young Adult

Grant support

This work was supported by funding from the Lieber Institute for Brain Development. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.