Trends in DNA Methylation with Age Replicate Across Diverse Human Populations

Genetics. 2017 Jul;206(3):1659-1674. doi: 10.1534/genetics.116.195594. Epub 2017 May 22.


Aging is associated with widespread changes in genome-wide patterns of DNA methylation. Thousands of CpG sites whose tissue-specific methylation levels are strongly correlated with chronological age have been previously identified. However, the majority of these studies have focused primarily on cosmopolitan populations living in the developed world; it is not known if age-related patterns of DNA methylation at these loci are similar across a broad range of human genetic and ecological diversity. We investigated genome-wide methylation patterns using saliva- and whole blood-derived DNA from two traditionally hunting and gathering African populations: the Baka of the western Central African rain forest and the ≠Khomani San of the South African Kalahari Desert. We identified hundreds of CpG sites whose methylation levels are significantly associated with age, thousands that are significant in a meta-analysis, and replicate trends previously reported in populations of non-African descent. We confirmed that an age-associated site in the promoter of the gene ELOVL2 shows a remarkably congruent relationship with aging in humans, despite extensive genetic and environmental variation across populations. We also demonstrate that genotype state at methylation quantitative trait loci (meQTLs) can affect methylation trends at some age-associated CpG sites. Our study explores the relationship between CpG methylation and chronological age in populations of African hunter-gatherers, who rely on different diets across diverse ecologies. While many age-related CpG sites replicate across populations, we show that considering common genetic variation at meQTLs further improves our ability to detect previously identified age associations.

Keywords: DNA methylation; aging; diverse human populations; epigenetics.

MeSH terms

  • Acetyltransferases / genetics
  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Aging / genetics*
  • Black People / ethnology
  • Black People / genetics*
  • Child
  • CpG Islands
  • DNA Methylation*
  • Fatty Acid Elongases
  • Female
  • Genetic Variation*
  • Genome, Human
  • Genotype
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Population / genetics*
  • Promoter Regions, Genetic
  • Quantitative Trait Loci


  • ELOVL2 protein, human
  • Acetyltransferases
  • Fatty Acid Elongases