Background: Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME/CFS) is a complex condition involving multiple organ systems and characterized by persistent/relapsing debilitating fatigue, immune dysfunction, neurological problems, and other symptoms not curable for at least 6 months. Disruption of DNA methylation patterns has been tied to various immune and neurological diseases; however, its status in ME/CFS remains uncertain. Our study aimed at identifying changes in the DNA methylation patterns that associate with ME/CFS.
Methods: We extracted genomic DNA from peripheral blood mononuclear cells from 13 ME/CFS study subjects and 12 healthy controls and measured global DNA methylation by ELISA-like method and site-specific methylation status using Illumina MethylationEPIC microarrays. Pyrosequencing validation included 33 ME/CFS cases and 31 controls from two geographically distant cohorts.
Results: Global DNA methylation levels of ME/CFS cases were similar to those of controls. However, microarray-based approach allowed detection of 17,296 differentially methylated CpG sites in 6,368 genes across regulatory elements and within coding regions of genes. Analysis of DNA methylation in promoter regions revealed 307 differentially methylated promoters. Ingenuity pathway analysis indicated that genes associated with differentially methylated promoters participated in at least 15 different pathways mostly related to cell signaling with a strong immune component.
Conclusions: This is the first study that has explored genome-wide epigenetic changes associated with ME/CFS using the advanced Illumina MethylationEPIC microarrays covering about 850,000 CpG sites in two geographically distant cohorts of ME/CFS cases and matched controls. Our results are aligned with previous studies that indicate a dysregulation of the immune system in ME/CFS. They also suggest a potential role of epigenetic de-regulation in the pathobiology of ME/CFS. We propose screening of larger cohorts of ME/CFS cases to determine the external validity of these epigenetic changes in order to implement them as possible diagnostic markers in clinical setting.