Background: One of the major challenges in current psychiatric epigenetic studies is the tissue specificity of epigenetic changes since access to brain samples is limited. Peripheral tissues have been studied as surrogates but the knowledge of cross-tissue genetic-epigenetic characteristics remains largely unknown. In this work, we conducted a comprehensive investigation of genetic influence on DNA methylation across brain and peripheral tissues with the aim to characterize cross-tissue genetic-epigenetic effects and their roles in the pathophysiology of psychiatric disorders.
Methods: Genome-wide methylation quantitative trait loci (meQTLs) from brain prefrontal cortex, whole blood, and saliva were identified separately and compared. Focusing on cis-acting effects, we tested the enrichment of cross-tissue meQTLs among cross-tissue expression QTLs and genetic risk loci of various diseases, including major psychiatric disorders. CpGs targeted by cross-tissue meQTLs were also tested for genomic distribution and functional enrichment as well as their contribution to methylation correlation across tissues. Finally, a consensus co-methylation network analysis on the cross-tissue meQTL targeted CpGs was performed on data of the three tissues collected from schizophrenia patients and controls.
Results: We found a significant overlap of cis meQTLs (45-73 %) and targeted CpG sites (31-68 %) among tissues. The majority of cross-tissue meQTLs showed consistent signs of cis-acting effects across tissues. They were significantly enriched in genetic risk loci of various diseases, especially schizophrenia, and also enriched in cross-tissue expression QTLs. Compared to CpG sites not targeted by any meQTLs, cross-tissue targeted CpGs were more distributed in CpG island shores and enhancer regions, and more likely had strong correlation with methylation levels across tissues. The targeted CpGs were also annotated to genes enriched in multiple psychiatric disorders and neurodevelopment-related pathways. Finally, we identified one co-methylation network shared between brain and blood showing significant schizophrenia association (p = 5.5 × 10-6).
Conclusions: Our results demonstrate prevalent cross-tissue meQTL effects and their contribution to the correlation of CpG methylation across tissues, while at the same time a large portion of meQTLs show tissue-specific characteristics, especially in brain. Significant enrichment of cross-tissue meQTLs in expression QTLs and genetic risk loci of schizophrenia suggests the potential of these cross-tissue meQTLs for studying the genetic effect on schizophrenia. The study provides compelling motivation for a well-designed experiment to further validate the use of surrogate tissues in the study of psychiatric disorders.
Keywords: Co-methylation network; Cross-tissue; DNA methylation; Genetic; Schizophrenia; eQTL; meQTLs.