Background: Preeclampsia (PE) is a heterogeneous, hypertensive disorder of pregnancy, with no robust biomarkers or effective treatments. We hypothesized that this heterogeneity is due to the existence of multiple subtypes of PE and, in support of this hypothesis, we recently identified five clusters of placentas within a large gene expression microarray dataset (N = 330), of which four (clusters 1, 2, 3, and 5) contained a substantial number of PE samples. However, while transcriptional analysis of placentas can subtype patients, we propose that the addition of epigenetic information could discern gene regulatory mechanisms behind the distinct PE pathologies, as well as identify clinically useful potential biomarkers.
Results: We subjected 48 of our samples from transcriptional clusters 1, 2, 3, and 5 to Infinium HumanMethylation450 arrays. Samples belonging to transcriptional clusters 1-3 still showed visible relationships to each other by methylation, but cluster 5, with known chromosomal abnormalities, no longer formed a cohesive group. Within transcriptional clusters 2 and 3, controlling for fetal sex and gestational age in the identification of differentially methylated sites, compared to the healthier cluster 1, dramatically reduced the number of significant sites, but increased the percentage that demonstrated a strong linear correlation with gene expression (from 5% and 2% to 9% and 8%, respectively). Locations exhibiting a positive relationship between methylation and gene expression were most frequently found in CpG open sea enhancer regions within the gene body, while those with a significant negative correlation were often annotated to the promoter in a CpG shore region. Integrated transcriptome and epigenome analysis revealed modifications in TGF-beta signaling, cell adhesion, oxidative phosphorylation, and metabolism pathways in cluster 2 placentas, and aberrations in antigen presentation, allograft rejection, and cytokine-cytokine receptor interaction in cluster 3 samples.
Conclusions: Overall, we have established DNA methylation alterations underlying a portion of the transcriptional development of "canonical" PE in cluster 2 and "immunological" PE in cluster 3. However, a significant number of the observed methylation changes were not associated with corresponding changes in gene expression, and vice versa, indicating that alternate methods of gene regulation will need to be explored to fully comprehend these PE subtypes.
Keywords: Clustering; DNA methylation; Gene expression; Placenta; Preeclampsia; Subtypes.