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Systematic Mendelian randomization framework elucidates hundreds of genetic loci which may influence disease through changes in DNA methylation levels

By Tom G Richardson, Philip C. Haycock, Jie Zheng, Nicholas J. Timpson, Tom R Gaunt, George Davey Smith, Caroline L. Relton, Gibran Hemani

Posted 14 Sep 2017
bioRxiv DOI: 10.1101/189076 (published DOI: 10.1093/hmg/ddy210)

We have undertaken an extensive Mendelian randomization (MR) study using methylation quantitative trait loci (mQTL) as genetic instruments to assess the potential causal relationship between genetic variation, DNA methylation and 139 complex traits. Using two-sample MR, we observed 1,191 effects across 62 traits where genetic variants were associated with both proximal DNA methylation (i.e. cis-mQTL) and complex trait variation (P<1.39x10-08). Joint likelihood mapping provided evidence that the causal mQTL for 364 of these effects across 58 traits was also likely the causal variant for trait variation. These effects showed a high rate of replication in the UK Biobank dataset for 14 selected traits, as 121 of the attempted 129 effects replicated. Integrating expression quantitative trait loci (eQTL) data suggested that genetic variants responsible for 319 of the 364 mQTL effects also influence gene expression, which indicates a coordinated system of effects that are consistent with causality. CpG sites were enriched for histone mark peaks in tissue types relevant to their associated trait and implicated genes were enriched across relevant biological pathways. Though we are unable to distinguish mediation from horizontal pleiotropy in these analyses, our findings should prove valuable in identifying candidate loci for further evaluation and help develop mechanistic insight into the aetiology of complex disease.

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