Major surgery induces acute changes in measured DNA methylation associated with immune response pathways

Sci Rep. 2020 Apr 1;10(1):5743. doi: 10.1038/s41598-020-62262-x.


Surgery is an invasive procedure evoking acute inflammatory and immune responses that can influence risk for postoperative complications including cognitive dysfunction and delirium. Although the specific mechanisms driving these responses have not been well-characterized, they are hypothesized to involve the epigenetic regulation of gene expression. We quantified genome-wide levels of DNA methylation in peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMCs) longitudinally collected from a cohort of elderly patients undergoing major surgery, comparing samples collected at baseline to those collected immediately post-operatively and at discharge from hospital. We identified acute changes in measured DNA methylation at sites annotated to immune system genes, paralleling changes in serum-levels of markers including C-reactive protein (CRP) and Interleukin 6 (IL-6) measured in the same individuals. Many of the observed changes in measured DNA methylation were consistent across different types of major surgery, although there was notable heterogeneity between surgery types at certain loci. The acute changes in measured DNA methylation induced by surgery are relatively stable in the post-operative period, generally persisting until discharge from hospital. Our results highlight the dramatic alterations in gene regulation induced by invasive surgery, primarily reflecting upregulation of the immune system in response to trauma, wound healing and anaesthesia.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • DNA Methylation*
  • Epigenesis, Genetic
  • Female
  • Gene Expression Regulation
  • Genome-Wide Association Study
  • Humans
  • Immune System Phenomena
  • Leukocytes, Mononuclear* / immunology
  • Leukocytes, Mononuclear* / metabolism
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Male
  • Postoperative Period