BACKGROUND: DNA methylation has recently been identified as a mediator between in utero famine exposure and a range of metabolic and psychiatric traits. However, genome-wide analyses are scarce and cross-sectional analyses are hampered by many potential confounding factors. Moreover, causal relations are hard to identify due to the lack of controlled experimental designs. In the current study, we therefore combined a comprehensive assessment of genome-wide DNA methylation differences in people exposed to the great Chinese famine in utero with an in vitro study in which we deprived fibroblasts of nutrition.
METHODS: We compared whole blood DNA methylation differences between 25 individuals in utero exposed to famine and 54 healthy control individuals using the HumanMethylation450 platform. In vitro, we analyzed DNA methylation changes in 10 fibroblast cultures that were nutritionally deprived for 72 h by withholding fetal bovine serum.
RESULTS: We identified three differentially methylated regions (DMRs) in four genes (ENO2, ZNF226, CCDC51, and TMA7) that were related to famine exposure in both analyses. Pathway analysis with data from both Chinese famine samples and fibroblasts highlighted the nervous system and neurogenesis pathways as the most affected by nutritional deprivation.
CONCLUSIONS: The combination of cross-sectional and experimental data provides indications that biological adaptation to famine leads to DNA methylation changes in genes involved in the central nervous system.