Background: Epigenetic modifications of the fragile X mental retardation 1 (FMR1) gene locus may impact the risk for reproductive and neurological disorders associated with expanded trinucleotide repeats and methylation status in the 5' untranslated region. FMR1 methylation is commonly assessed by Southern blot (SB) analysis, yet this method suffers a cumbersome workflow and relatively poor sizing resolution especially for premutation allele characteristic for fragile X-associated disorders. In this study, a methylation PCR (mPCR) assay was used to evaluate correlations among genotype, epitype, and phenotype in fragile X premutation (PM) carrier women in order to advance the understanding of the association between molecular determinants and the presence of fragile X-associated tremor and ataxia (FXTAS).
Results: Activation ratios (ARs) in 39 PM women were determined by mPCR and compared with SB analysis. ARs were distributed across a range of values including five samples with <20% AR and six with >80% AR. The two methods were correlated (R2 of 0.87 and F test of <0.001), indicating that mPCR can measure AR in agreement with established assays. However, mPCR was unique in identifying novel and distinct patterns of methylation mosaicism in premutation carrier women, including seven sibling pairs that were assessed using FXTAS clinical rating scales. Of note, four of six pairs with defined age of onset for neurological signs showed ARs consistent with skewed activation of the pathogenic expanded allele. One subject with severe FXTAS had a mosaic full mutation allele identified using mPCR but not detected by SB analysis.
Conclusions: We utilized a repeatable and streamlined methodology to characterize FMR1 inactivation in premutation carrier women. The method was concordant with SB analysis and provided higher resolution information on allele and methylation mosaicism. This approach can facilitate the characterization of epigenetic factors influencing fragile X phenotypes in larger cohort studies that can advance understanding and treatment of fragile X-associated disorders.
Keywords: Activation ratio; FMR1; Fragile X; Methylation PCR; Premutation; X-chromosome inactivation.