Genome-wide and digital polymerase chain reaction epigenetic assessments of alcohol consumption

Am J Med Genet B Neuropsychiatr Genet. 2018 Jul;177(5):479-488. doi: 10.1002/ajmg.b.32636. Epub 2018 Apr 28.


The lack of readily employable biomarkers of alcohol consumption is a problem for clinicians and researchers. In 2014, we published a preliminary DNA methylation signature of heavy alcohol consumption that remits as a function of abstinence. Herein, we present new genome-wide methylation findings from a cohort of additional subjects and a meta-analysis of the data. Using DNA from 47 consecutive heavy drinkers admitted for alcohol detoxification in the context of alcohol treatment and 47 abstinent controls, we replicate the 2014 results and show that 21,221 CpG residues are differentially methylated in active heavy drinkers. Meta-analysis of all data from the 448,058 probes common to the two methylation platforms shows a similarly profound signature with confirmation of findings from other groups. Principal components analyses show that genome-wide methylation changes in response to alcohol consumption load on two major factors with one component accounting at least 50% of the total variance in both smokers and nonsmoking alcoholics. Using data from the arrays, we derive a panel of five methylation probes that classifies use status with a receiver operator characteristic area under the curve (AUC) of 0.97. Finally, using droplet digital polymerase chain reaction (PCR), we convert these array-based findings to two marker assays with an AUC of 0.95 and a four marker set AUC of 0.98. We conclude that DNA methylation assessments are capable of quantifying alcohol use status and suggest that readily employable digital PCR approaches for substance consumption may find widespread use in alcohol-related research and patient care.

Keywords: DNA methylation; alcohol; digital PCR.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Alcohol Drinking / genetics*
  • Alcoholism / genetics*
  • Area Under Curve
  • Case-Control Studies
  • Cohort Studies
  • CpG Islands / genetics
  • DNA / genetics
  • DNA Methylation / genetics
  • Epigenesis, Genetic / genetics
  • Epigenomics / methods
  • Ethanol
  • Female
  • Genome-Wide Association Study / methods
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Polymerase Chain Reaction / methods
  • ROC Curve


  • Ethanol
  • DNA