Identifying causal models between genetically regulated methylation patterns and gene expression in healthy colon tissue

Clin Epigenetics. 2021 Aug 21;13(1):162. doi: 10.1186/s13148-021-01148-9.


Background: DNA methylation is involved in the regulation of gene expression and phenotypic variation, but the inter-relationship between genetic variation, DNA methylation and gene expression remains poorly understood. Here we combine the analysis of genetic variants related to methylation markers (methylation quantitative trait loci: mQTLs) and gene expression (expression quantitative trait loci: eQTLs) with methylation markers related to gene expression (expression quantitative trait methylation: eQTMs), to provide novel insights into the genetic/epigenetic architecture of colocalizing molecular markers.

Results: Normal mucosa from 100 patients with colon cancer and 50 healthy donors included in the Colonomics project have been analyzed. Linear models have been used to find mQTLs and eQTMs within 1 Mb of the target gene. From 32,446 eQTLs previously detected, we found a total of 6850 SNPs, 114 CpGs and 52 genes interrelated, generating 13,987 significant combinations of co-occurring associations (meQTLs) after Bonferromi correction. Non-redundant meQTLs were 54, enriched in genes involved in metabolism of glucose and xenobiotics and immune system. SNPs in meQTLs were enriched in regulatory elements (enhancers and promoters) compared to random SNPs within 1 Mb of genes. Three colorectal cancer GWAS SNPs were related to methylation changes, and four SNPs were related to chemerin levels. Bayesian networks have been used to identify putative causal relationships among associated SNPs, CpG and gene expression triads. We identified that most of these combinations showed the canonical pathway of methylation markers causes gene expression variation (60.1%) or non-causal relationship between methylation and gene expression (33.9%); however, in up to 6% of these combinations, gene expression was causing variation in methylation markers.

Conclusions: In this study we provided a characterization of the regulation between genetic variants and inter-dependent methylation markers and gene expression in a set of 150 healthy colon tissue samples. This is an important finding for the understanding of molecular susceptibility on colon-related complex diseases.

Keywords: DNA methylation; Epigenetic regulation; Gene expression; Genetic and epigenetic control; Genetics; eQTLs; eQTMs; mQTLs.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Colon / physiology*
  • Colorectal Neoplasms / genetics*
  • DNA Methylation / genetics*
  • Epigenesis, Genetic*
  • Female
  • Gene Expression Regulation
  • Genetic Variation
  • Genome-Wide Association Study
  • Healthy Volunteers
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Quantitative Trait Loci / genetics*