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Epigenome-wide DNA methylation profiling of healthy COVID-19 recoverees reveals a unique signature in circulating immune cells

By Johanna Huoman, Shumaila Sayyab, Eirini Apostolou, Lovisa Karlsson, Lucas Porcile, Muhammad Rizwan, Sumit Sharma, Jyotirmoy Das, Anders Rosen, Maria Lerm

Posted 06 Jul 2021
medRxiv DOI: 10.1101/2021.07.05.21260014

Background: Epigenetic alterations upon microbial challenge have been described as both a defence strategy and a result of pathogenic manipulation. While most COVID-19 studies focus on inflammatory and immune-mediated responses, little is known about epigenetic modifications in response to SARS-CoV-2 infection. Methods: Epigenome-wide DNA methylation patterns from COVID-19 convalescents were compared to uninfected controls from before and after the pandemic. Peripheral blood mononuclear cell (PBMC) DNA was extracted from uninfected controls, COVID-19 convalescents and symptom-free individuals with SARS-CoV-2-specific T cell-responses, as well as from PBMCs stimulated in vitro with SARS-CoV-2. Subsequently, the Illumina MethylationEPIC 850K array was performed, and statistical/bioinformatic analyses comprised differential DNA methylation, pathway over-representation and module identification analyses. Results: Differential DNA methylation patterns distinguished COVID-19 convalescents from uninfected controls, with similar results in an experimental SARS-CoV-2 infection model. A SARS-CoV-2-induced module was identified in vivo, comprising 66 genes of which six (TP53, INS, HSPA4, SP1, ESR1 and FAS) were present in corresponding in vitro analyses. Over-representation analyses revealed involvement in Wnt, muscarinic acetylcholine receptor signalling and gonadotropin-releasing hormone receptor pathways. Furthermore, numerous differentially methylated and network genes from both settings interacted with the SARS-CoV-2 interactome. Conclusions: Altered DNA methylation patterns of COVID-19 convalescents suggest recovery from mild-to-moderate SARS-CoV-2 infection leaves longstanding epigenetic traces. As in vitro SARS-CoV-2 infection corroborated in vivo exposure results, this indicates DNA methylation is involved in immune cell responses to challenge with this virus. Future studies should determine whether this reflects host-induced protective antiviral defence or targeted viral hijacking to evade host defence.

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