Intra- and interindividual epigenetic variation in human germ cells

James M. Flanagan, Violeta Popendikyte, Natalija Pozdniakovaite, Martha Sobolev, Abbas Assadzadeh, Axel Schumacher, Masood Zangeneh, Lynette Lau, Carl Virtanen, Sun Chong Wang, Arturas Petronis

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

204 Scopus citations


Epigenetics represents a secondary inheritance system that has been poorly investigated in human biology. The objective of this study was to perform a comprehensive analysis of DNA methylation variation between and within the germlines of normal males. First, methylated cytosines were mapped using bisulphite modification-based sequencing in the promoter regions of the following disease genes: presenilins (PSEN1 and PSEN2), breast cancer (BRCA1 and BRCA2), myotonic dystrophy (DM1), and Huntington disease (HD). Major epigenetic variation was detected within samples, since the majority of sperm cells of the same individual exhibited unique DNA methylation profiles. In the interindividual analysis, 41 of 61 pairwise comparisons revealed distinct DNA methylation profiles (P = .036 to 6.8 × 10-14). Second, a microarray-based epigenetic profiling of the same sperm samples was performed using a 12,198-feature CpG island microarray. The microarray analysis has identified numerous DNA methylation-variable positions in the germ cell genome. The largest degree of variation was detected within the promoter CpG islands and pericentromeric satellites among the single-copy DNA fragments and repetitive elements, respectively. A number of genes, such as EED, CTNNA2, CALM1, CDH13, and STMN2, exhibited age-related DNA methylation changes. Finally, allele-specific methylation patterns in CDH13 were detected. This study provides evidence for significant epigenetic variability in human germ cells, which warrants further research to determine whether such epigenetic patterns can be efficiently transmitted across generations and what impact inherited epigenetic individuality may have on phenotypic outcomes in health and disease.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)67-84
Number of pages18
JournalAmerican Journal of Human Genetics
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jul 2006


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