High-resolution analyses of human sperm dynamic methylome reveal thousands of novel age-related epigenetic alterations

Clin Epigenetics. 2020 Dec 14;12(1):192. doi: 10.1186/s13148-020-00988-1.


Background: Children of aged fathers are at a higher risk of developing mental disorders. Alterations in sperm DNA methylation have been implicated as a potential cause. However, age-dependent modifications of the germ cells' epigenome remain poorly understood. Our objective was to assess the DNA methylation profile of human spermatozoa during aging.

Results: We used a high throughput, customized methylC-capture sequencing (MCC-seq) approach to characterize the dynamic DNA methylation in spermatozoa from 94 fertile and infertile men, who were categorized as young, 48 men between 18-38 years or old 46 men between 46-71 years. We identified more than 150,000 age-related CpG sites that are significantly differentially methylated among 2.65 million CpG sites covered. We conducted machine learning using our dataset to predict the methylation age of subjects; the age prediction accuracy based on our assay provided a more accurate prediction than that using the 450 K chip approach. In addition, we found that there are more hypermethylated (62%) than hypomethylated (38%) CpG sites in sperm of aged men, corresponding to 798 of total differential methylated regions (DMRs), of which 483 are hypermethylated regions (HyperDMR), and 315 hypomethylated regions (HypoDMR). Moreover, the distribution of age-related hyper- and hypomethylated CpGs in sperm is not random; the CpG sites that were hypermethylated with advanced age were frequently located in the distal region to genes, whereas hypomethylated sites were near to gene transcription start sites (TSS). We identified a high density of age-associated CpG changes in chromosomes 4 and 16, particularly HyperDMRs with localized clusters, the chr4 DMR cluster overlaps PGC1α locus, a protein involved in metabolic aging and the chr16 DMR cluster overlaps RBFOX1 locus, a gene implicated in neurodevelopmental disease. Gene ontology analysis revealed that the most affected genes by age were associated with development, neuron projection, differentiation and recognition, and behaviour, suggesting a potential link to the higher risk of neurodevelopmental disorders in children of aged fathers.

Conclusion: We identified thousands of age-related and sperm-specific epigenetic alterations. These findings provide novel insight in understanding human sperm DNA methylation dynamics during paternal aging, and the subsequently affected genes potentially related to diseases in offspring.

Keywords: Advanced paternal age; DNA methylation; Fertility; MCC-seq; Spermatozoa.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aging / genetics*
  • Case-Control Studies
  • Child
  • CpG Islands
  • DNA Methylation
  • Epigenome / genetics*
  • Epigenomics
  • Fathers / statistics & numerical data
  • Fertility / genetics
  • Gene Ontology
  • Germ Cells / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Machine Learning
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Neurodevelopmental Disorders / diagnosis
  • Neurodevelopmental Disorders / epidemiology*
  • Peroxisome Proliferator-Activated Receptor Gamma Coactivator 1-alpha / genetics
  • Predictive Value of Tests
  • RNA Splicing Factors / genetics
  • Spermatozoa / metabolism*


  • PPARGC1A protein, human
  • Peroxisome Proliferator-Activated Receptor Gamma Coactivator 1-alpha
  • RBFOX1 protein, human
  • RNA Splicing Factors