, Volume 59, Issue 8, pp 1714–1723 | Cite as

DNA hypermethylation of CD3+ T cells from cord blood of infants exposed to intrauterine growth restriction

  • Lyda Williams
  • Yoshinori Seki
  • Fabien Delahaye
  • Alex Cheng
  • Mamta Fuloria
  • Francine Hughes Einstein
  • Maureen J. CharronEmail author



Intrauterine growth restriction (IUGR) is associated with increased susceptibility to obesity, metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes. Although the mechanisms underlying the developmental origins of metabolic disease are poorly understood, evidence suggests that epigenomic alterations play a critical role. We sought to identify changes in DNA methylation patterns that are associated with IUGR in CD3+ T cells purified from umbilical cord blood obtained from male newborns who were appropriate for gestational age (AGA) or who had been exposed to IUGR.


CD3+ T cells were isolated from cord blood obtained from IUGR and AGA infants. The genome-wide methylation profile in eight AGA and seven IUGR samples was determined using the HELP tagging assay. Validation analysis using targeted bisulfite sequencing and bisulfite massARRAY was performed on the original cohort as well as biological replicates consisting of two AGA and four IUGR infants. The Segway algorithm was used to identify methylation changes within regulatory regions of the genome.


A global shift towards hypermethylation in IUGR was seen compared with AGA (89.8% of 4,425 differentially methylated loci), targeted to regulatory regions of the genome, specifically promoters and enhancers. Pathway analysis identified dysregulation of pathways involved in metabolic disease (type 2 diabetes mellitus, insulin signalling, mitogen-activated protein kinase signalling) and T cell development, regulation and activation (T cell receptor signalling), as well as transcription factors (TCF3, LEF1 and NFATC) that regulate T cells. Furthermore, bump-hunting analysis revealed differentially methylated regions in PRDM16 and HLA-DPB1, genes important for adipose tissue differentiation, stem cell maintenance and function and T cell activation.


Our findings suggest that the alterations in methylation patterns observed in IUGR CD3+ T cells may have functional consequences in targeted genes, regulatory regions and transcription factors. These may serve as biomarkers to identify those at ‘high risk’ for diminished attainment of full health potential who can benefit from early interventions.

Access to research materials

HELP tagging data: Gene Expression Omnibus database (GSE77268), scheduled to be released on 25 January 2019.


Human Metabolic syndrome Prediction of type 2 diabetes 



Appropriate for gestational age


Bisulfite sequencing mapping platform


Differentially methylated loci


Differentially methylated region


False discovery rate


Gene Set Enrichment Analysis




Intrauterine growth restriction


Kyoto Encyclopedia of Genes and Genomes


Large for gestational age


Mitogen-activated protein kinase


Peripheral blood lymphocyte


Reactive oxygen species


Regulatory T cell


Targeted bisulfite sequencing


Transcription start site


The developmental origins of health and disease hypothesis implicate an adverse prenatal environment in the development of chronic diseases [1, 2], a concept known as programming. Epidemiological research has demonstrated that an adverse environment during development can program metabolic pathways in the fetus and increase susceptibility to metabolic syndrome [3, 4]. This finding is supported by studies using animal models of intrauterine growth restriction (IUGR), including maternal nutrient deprivation (e.g. energy or protein restriction) or excess (e.g. high-fat diet and hyperglycaemia) [5, 6].

Annually, approximately 8% of non-anomalous infants are born with IUGR, a multifactorial disorder that likely contributes to the worldwide epidemic of metabolic disease [7]. Studies from the Dutch Famine Cohort, and other epidemiological studies, linked low birthweight with increased risk for cardiovascular disease-related death and type 2 diabetes [8]. Although the molecular mechanisms underlying this phenomenon are poorly understood, several decades later, peripheral blood leucocytes showed an association between nutrient deprivation during fetal life and lower methylation of IGF2, a key factor in growth and development [9]. Other studies have shown distinct methylation patterns in haematopoietic CD34+ stem cells purified from cord blood of infants exposed to IUGR (referred to as ‘IUGR infants’) as well as those who were large for gestational age (LGA), when compared with infants who were appropriate for gestational age (AGA). Interestingly, a sexual dimorphic effect was observed in which the number of hypermethylated loci was markedly higher in IUGR male infants and LGA female infants [10]. Furthermore, methylation differences were found in genes belonging to pathways for MODY and hedgehog (HH) signalling, both of which are associated with premature glucose intolerance, type 2 diabetes and stem cell proliferation/renewal [10]. These studies highlight the potential role of dysregulated DNA methylation in key metabolic pathways in metabolic disease susceptibility.

Obesity has been associated with an increased number of macrophages, neutrophils, T cells, B cells and mast cells in adipose tissue [11]. Furthermore, obesity-induced inflammation contributes to a number of chronic illnesses, including type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome, in humans and experimental models [12, 13]. Recent studies have demonstrated that CD3+ T cells play an important role in obesity and other inflammatory diseases by inducing inflammation and promoting insulin resistance via accumulation of inflammatory macrophages in adipose tissue [14]. IUGR is also associated with a decrease in the number of circulating regulatory T cells (Tregs) in cord blood [15] and a decrease in subpopulations responsible for regulating inflammation, including CD3+ cells in uterine decidua [16]. Thus, exposure to inflammation during fetal life may link growth restriction with subsequent development of type 2 diabetes [17]. While genes displaying differential methylation associated with IUGR have been identified in peripheral blood lymphocytes (PBLs) [9], the cell heterogeneity of the samples may have introduced experimental artefacts that could alter findings [18].

Here, our overall objective was to identify differentially methylated loci (DML) in purified CD3+ T cells of IUGR and AGA term male newborns using a genome-wide approach. CD3+ T cells are metabolically relevant cells due to their role in inflammatory responses and represent a relatively homogenous population composed of terminally differentiated CD4+ and CD8+ cells [19]. We elected to study male IUGR infants based on our previous studies demonstrating greater methylation changes in CD34+ haematopoietic stem cells from IUGR male infants compared with female infants [10]. By identifying DML in CD3+ T cells associated with IUGR using a genome-wide approach, we identify potential functional targets that may be related to inflammatory changes seen in metabolic disease pathogenesis. Our secondary objective was to map differential methylation to genomic regulatory elements of known metabolic pathways/genes of interest that could prove useful in narrowing the list of candidate genes for future research and clinical studies.


Approval from the Institutional Review Board of the Montefiore Medical Center and the Committee on Clinical Investigation at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine was obtained in accordance with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act regulations. Written informed consent was obtained from all participants prior to the study. To help guide the reader, a flowchart of procedures is presented in electronic supplementary material (ESM) Fig. 1.

Sample collection

Cord blood samples were obtained from 21 consenting women who delivered healthy, non-anomalous term neonates without evidence of fetal distress (normal Apgar scores and cord blood gases without acidaemia) at the Weiler Division of Montefiore Medical Center. One woman in the IUGR group had pre-eclampsia, whereas all other pregnancies were uncomplicated in both groups. Birthweight and ponderal index were used to identify cases and controls matched for gestational age at delivery, sex and self-identified race/ethnicity. IUGR was defined by birthweight and ponderal index values <tenth percentile for gestational age and sex. AGA infants had normal birthweight and ponderal index percentiles (>tenth and <90th) for both variables. Maternal and infant characteristics are shown in Table 1. Cohort 1 (with genome-wide methylation data) is composed of eight AGA and seven IUGR infants and Cohort 2 (for technical and biological validation) is composed of two AGA and four IUGR infants.
Table 1

Maternal and neonatal characteristics of the participants


AGA (n = 10)

IUGR (n = 11)


  Gestational age (weeks)

39.2 ± 0.7

39.2 ± 1.9

  Birthweight (g)

3,221 ± 290

2,601 ± 432***

  Length (cm)

48.5 ± 1.3

47.9 ± 2.5

  Ponderal index (g/cm3)

2.8 ± 0.2

2.3 ± 0.1****


  Maternal age (years)

26.0 ± 4.8

24.5 ± 6.7

  Pre-pregnancy weight (kg)

74.8 ± 20.8

68.5 ± 12.1

  Pre-pregnancy BMI (kg/m2)

28.9 ± 8.2

26.5 ± 5.5

  Weight at term (kg)

86.5 ± 18.9

75.4 ± 9.5

  Weight gain during pregnancy (kg)

11.7 ± 6.4

7.6 ± 5.8

  BMI at term (kg/m2)

33.4 ± 7.1

29.2 ± 4.5

***p < 0.001 and ****p < 0.0001 vs AGA. Data are means ± SD

Isolation of CD3+ T cells

Cord blood samples were collected in a standardised protocol used routinely for public cord blood donation [20] and CD3+ T cells were isolated using an immunomagnetic separation technique. Mononuclear cells were separated by Ficoll–Paque density gradient (GE Healthcare, Little Chalfont, UK) or by PrepaCyte-WBC (BioE, St Paul, MN, USA). CD3+ T cells were obtained by positive immunomagnetic bead selection after CD34+ cell depletion using the AutoMACS Separator (Miltenyi Biotech, Bergisch Gladbach, Germany) resulting in isolation of cells with ≥95% purity. Purified cells were cryopreserved in 10% dimethyl sulfoxide using controlled rate freezing.

HELP tagging assay

The HELP tagging assay was used to determine genome-wide methylation [21] of purified CD3+ T cells from 15 infants (eight AGA, seven IUGR). Briefly, genomic DNA was prepared from frozen CD3+ T cells and digested to completion by either HpaII or MspI. Methylation-sensitive HpaII profiles were obtained for each sample. Methylation scores were calculated using a previously generated MspI human reference.

Data analysis

DNA methylation scores from 0 (fully methylated) to 100 (unmethylated) were filtered by confidence scores determined for each sample in Cohort 1 (eight AGA, seven IUGR) based on the total number of HpaII-generated reads as a function of the total number of MspI-generated reads. Confidence score was used to eliminate loci with insufficient representation to ensure the robustness of the data. Methylation scores were compared between AGA and IUGR infants and DML defined as those having an absolute difference of >20, and a significance <0.05. Statistical analysis was run using LIMMA (Bioconductor, [22] on preprocessed data using ComBat (Bioconductor, [23]. ComBat is a means to correct for various biological and technical confounders, such as batch effect, race, maternal BMI and other clinical information, to allow focus on our variable of interest (i.e. IUGR vs AGA). Principal component analysis was used to assess variability across samples and validate ComBat correction (ESM Fig. 2). We obtained 4,425 significant DML out of 1,077,400 testable loci after confidence score filtering. All data are available through the Gene Expression Omnibus (GEO) database ( under the accession number GSE77268 and are scheduled to be released on 25 January 2019.

Bisulfite MassARRAY validation

Technical validation of HELP tagging assay data using primers for loci with a range of methylation scores and validation of DML for MARK2 and CDH12 were performed using bisulfite MassARRAY (Mass array nanodispenser, Sequenom, San Diego, CA, USA) [24] on Cohort 1. Primers were designed to cover loci with varying levels of DNA methylation (ESM Table 1). Matched peak data were exported using EpiTYPER software (Sequenom, San Diego, CA, USA) and analysed for quality using analytical tools that we developed [25].

Targeted bisulfite sequencing

After bisulfite conversion of genomic DNA (200 ng) using the EZ DNA Methylation-Gold Kit (Zymo Research, Irvine, CA, USA), separate PCR amplification of 55 individual target regions was performed (primers listed in ESM Table 1), the amplicons were pooled in equal ratios and Illumina libraries were generated using robotic automation (Tecan, Zurich, Switzerland). A total of 21 libraries (eight AGA, seven IUGR [Cohort 1]; two AGA, four IUGR [Cohort 2]) were multiplexed on the Illumina MiSeq (Illumina, San Diego, CA, USA) for 250 bp paired end sequencing, including standards for 0% and 100% methylation. Amplicons were selected to validate biologically relevant loci as well as to represent the range of DNA methylation values from 0 to 100%.

Bisulfite sequence alignment and DNA methylation calls

Sequence reads from Illumina MiSeq were trimmed for adapter sequences and aligned to the human genome using the default settings of BSMAP (bisulfite sequencing mapping platform) (version bsmap/2.89/gcc.4.4.7, [26], requiring a PHRED score of ≥37 during alignment. Bisulfite conversion efficiency was determined (C→T in CH contexts, ESM Table 2) and the methylation score for each sample, from 0 (fully methylated) to 100 (unmethylated), was quantified for every CpG in the amplicon using the methratio tool provided by BSMAP. Validation was performed on Cohort 1 and on biological replicates in Cohort 2.

Genome annotation

Publicly available data from chromatin immunoprecipitation followed by massively parallel sequencing (ChIP-seq) was obtained from the Roadmap in Epigenomics project for CD3+ T cells from several donors (ESM Table 3). Annotation involved processing the raw data for chromatin accessibility (DNAse hypersensitivity) along with ChIP-seq data for six histone modifications (H3K4me1, H3K27me3, H3K27ac, H3K4me3, H3K36me3 and H3K9me3), followed by use of the Segway algorithm [27] to predict seven features as previously described [10]. Annotation was generated by analysing enrichment of each feature for the different chromatin tracks with a one-way proportion test performed with continuity correction of the observed vs expected proportion. Genome-wide repartition of each feature was further investigated in relation to transcription start site based on RefSeq gene reference data.

Based on enrichment and genomic localisation, feature 3 was annotated as candidate active promoter (H3K4me3), feature 1 as candidate inactive promoter (H3k27me3), features 0 and 6 as candidate enhancers (H3K1me3 and H3K9me3, respectively) and feature 5 as transcribed sequences (H3K36me3). Finally, features 2 and 4 did not show sufficient specific enrichment to be annotated. Every HpaII site was assigned to a genomic feature.

Functional enrichment analysis

The Bioconductor package GoSeq [28] was adapted to control for bias associated with the variation in the number of HpaII sites associated with different genes as previously described [10]. The candidate DML were assigned to genes only if they overlapped with candidate promoters within ±2 kb (features 1 and 3) or candidate enhancers within ±5 kb (features 0 and 6), features with a greater likelihood of having functional consequences. KEGG (Kyoto Encyclopedia of Genes and Genomes) pathway analysis was performed using candidate DML and false discovery rate (FDR) <0.05 was applied to determine significantly different pathways. Permutation analysis was performed to confirm significance of these results, 1,000 iterations of the same number of randomly selected genes failing to identify the same pathways (p < 0.001). Transcription factor analysis was performed by Gene Set Enrichment Analysis (GSEA) [29].

Bump hunting

To identify differentially methylated regions (DMRs) we used bump hunting, specifically the dmrFind algorithm within the CHARM package (Bioconductor, charm version 2.16.1, [30]. DMRs are defined by four or more consecutive DML within a 1 kb distance. DMRs 1 kb upstream of the transcription start site (TSS) or within the gene body were mapped to the corresponding gene for further analysis.

Literature search

The PubMed database was searched for publications between 2000 and 2015 using the search terms IUGR and methylation, metabolic disease, T cells or T cell-associated genes. Overlaps between DML from the present study and those in the literature were identified.


Genome-wide DNA methylation profiles

Genome-wide DNA methylation profiles of purified CD3+ T cells from the cord blood of Cohort 1 (AGA n = 8; IUGR n = 7) demonstrated a shift towards hypermethylation in IUGR (Fig. 1a). From the 4,425 loci defined as candidate DML, 3,973 loci (89.8%) showed increased DNA methylation (hypermethylation) and 452 loci (10.2%) showed decreased methylation (hypomethylation) in IUGR compared with control (Fig. 1b). This subset of loci is sufficient to dissociate AGA samples from IUGR samples as illustrated by the heatmap in Fig. 1c. Furthermore, hypermethylation in IUGR is generally seen throughout the genome (Fig. 1d).
Fig. 1

Dysregulated methylation in CD3+ T cells from umbilical cord blood of IUGR neonates. (a) Box plot of methylation scores (0, fully methylated; 100, unmethylated) for IUGR (red) and AGA (blue) infants. The thick horizontal line represents the median value, the whiskers represent the distribution of values and the edges of the rectangle represent the interquartile range. (b) Volcano plot of DNA methylation score differences between AGA and IUGR infants based on 1,077,400 loci throughout the genome. DML with p < 0.05 and methylation difference |>20| are shown in black. (c) Self-organising heatmap of candidate DML showing clustering by sample. (d) Chromosomal distribution of DML; yellow, hypermethylated DML; blue, hypomethylated DML. (e) Density plot of Segway features within a 10 kb window from the TSS. (f) Bar plot representing the proportional distribution of each feature in terms of loci tested by HELP tagging vs the proportions of features at DML. The histogram to the right compares the proportion of loci within each feature between the tested loci vs the DML. Significant enrichment are as follows: *p < 0.05 and ***p < 0.001

Based on this annotation, DML were assigned to 1,807 genes. Interestingly, 318 of these genes account for two or more DML (Table 2). The gene accounting for the most DML is PTPRN2, with 13 DML (12 hypermethylated CpGs and one hypomethylated CpG). PRDM16, which is involved in differentiation of brown adipose tissue [31] and stem cell maintenance [32], was hypermethylated on six CpG sites. NCOR2, a co-repressor of importance for homeostatic processes, inflammation and circadian rhythms [33], had five hypermethylated CpGs and one hypomethylated CpG. We then assessed the presence of regions of vulnerability to methylation across the whole genome. Regions of vulnerability, or DMRs, are defined as regions with average methylation over several CpGs that are significantly different between AGA and IUGR infants. Bump-hunting analysis identified 45 DMRs. Of these, PRDM16 [31, 32] and HLA-DPB1, which is important in regulating activation of CD8+ cells [34], were identified (Table 3).
Table 2

Number of genes with DML and the number of DMLs in the gene

Number of DMLs in gene

Number of genes

Gene name





































Table 3

Genes identified by bump hunting















PRDM16 a
















































































PAX5 a


















































IRF9 a





























































FAM19A5 a

Genes were identified by bump hunting using a 1 kb window

aGenes that also have DML

Functional analysis

Using a more precise analysis to assess the functional relevance of the DML, we first assigned each locus to a specific feature using our generated CD3+ T cell-specific genome annotation (Fig. 1e). Of the 4,425 DML, 4,125 loci were assigned to genomic features 0–6 and, when compared with the distribution of tested loci by feature, DML were significantly enriched in Segway features 6 (p < 0.001) and 0 (p < 0.05) (corresponding to candidate inactive and active enhancer, respectively), feature 3 (p < 0.001) (candidate active promoter) and feature 1 (p < 0.001) (candidate inactive promoter), suggesting that the epigenetic dysregulation of CD3+ T cells in IUGR is targeted towards regulatory transcriptional elements (Fig. 1f).

Pathways analysis was then performed using a modified GoSeq approach. The top 50 significant pathways using KEGG database are listed in ESM Table 4. The primary immunodeficiency pathway contained T cell-related genes that were differentially methylated between AGA and IUGR, as well as genes involved in the differentiation of helper T cells. Other significant pathways demonstrating differential methylation between AGA and IUGR infants include type 2 diabetes and mitogen-activated protein kinase (MAPK), phosphatidylinositol and Wnt signalling.

Transcription factor analysis was performed to determine whether DML localised to transcription factor binding sites. As shown in Table 4, DML are enriched in binding sites for TCF3, LEF1 and NFATC, transcription factors involved in T cell development and T cell receptor signalling pathways.
Table 4

Transcription factor binding sites enriched in DML in CD3+ T cells from cord blood

Transcription factor


FDR q value



2.41 × 10−35

No match to any known transcription factor


7.69 × 10−19



4.61 × 10−18



8.18 × 10−16



1.91 × 10−15


To be assured of the significance of our findings, several validation steps were performed. First, using single locus quantitative validation studies, reproducibility of the DNA methylation differences at candidate DML using two different techniques, bisulfite MassARRAY and targeted bisulfite sequencing (TBS), was tested. MassARRAY analyses confirmed a strong correlation between MassARRAY and HELP-tagging data (R 2 = 0.921) (data not shown).

Biological validation was then performed in an independent cohort consisting of two AGA and four IUGR infants. We performed TBS at 55 loci in all 21 infants (Cohort 1 and Cohort 2). The methylation scores obtained from TBS and HELP tagging were strongly inversely correlated (R 2 = 0.703) (Fig. 2a) demonstrating the technical robustness of the HELP tagging assay (ESM Table 5). Several genes playing key roles in T cell function, metabolic disease pathogenesis and DNA methylation, including NFATC2, GCK, PRDM16, MMP9, LDLR, KCNQ1 and DNMT3B, were validated (Figs 2b and 3).
Fig. 2

Technical validation. (a) Correlation between HELP tagging and TBS (R 2 = 0.70285). (b) Genes discussed in the manuscript. Black circles, AGA; white circles, IUGR

Fig. 3

Biological validation of HELP tagging data. (a) Violin plot representing DNA methylation repartition in AGA (white) and IUGR (grey) from TBS and HELP tagging for PDRM16. Per cent methylation measured by HELP tagging for several consecutive loci identified as DMRs by bump hunting within PRDM16 is also shown. (bg) Violin plots showing DNA methylation repartition from TBS and HELP tagging for MMP9 (b), LDLR (c) and GCK (d), NFATC2 (e), DNMT3B (f) and KCNQ1 (g). AGA n = 10, IUGR n = 11; chr, chromosome. The horizontal line represents the median value, and the interquartile range is depicted by the thick black bar

Further, comparison of DML from CD3+ T cells with those previously found in CD34+ haematopoietic progenitor stem cells purified from IUGR infants [10] revealed a direct overlap of 35 precise loci between the two cell types (ESM Table 6). Validation of MARK2 and CDH12 was performed using bisulfite MassARRAY as Wnt signalling genes were previously identified as hypermethylated in CD34+ cells from IUGR [10] (Fig. 4).
Fig. 4

Genes involved in Wnt pathways showing hypermethylation in both CD3+ and CD34+ cells from IUGR. Validation of DMLs with bisulfite MassARRAY. Violin plot representing DNA methylation repartition for AGA (white) and IUGR (grey) from MassARRAY and HELP tagging for CDH12 (a) and MARK2 (b). AGA n = 8, IUGR n = 7. The horizontal line represents the median value, and the interquartile range is depicted by the thick black bar

Finally, we surveyed the list of DML for genes previously shown to play a role in T cell development as well as for those shown to be differentially methylated in other IUGR cohorts (ESM Table 7). Overlapping DML were identified in 13 genes that play a role in T cell development (e.g. NFATC2 and TCF3) and 15 genes previously shown to be linked to IUGR (e.g. KCNQ1, INSR and RXRA).


We found an overall shift towards hypermethylation in CD3+ T cells of IUGR compared with AGA male infants. Furthermore, the DML were targeted specifically to regulatory regions of genes in key pathways known to have downstream metabolic and inflammatory effects.

CD3+ cell differentiation plays a key role in the inflammatory state seen in metabolic disease, and alteration of the CD4+:CD8+ cell ratio may have downstream effects in the development of age-associated diseases [14]. Interestingly, an analysis of transcription factors revealed that several involved in the regulation of CD4+ and CD8+ cells were differentially methylated in IUGR infants. These include NFATC2, which is critical in the development and function of the immune system, T cell differentiation and thymocyte development [35], and TCF3, which functions in T cell development [36] and the regulatory circuitry of embryonic stem cells to influence self-renewal and pluripotency [37]. Using CD34+ haematopoietic stem cells, Delahaye et al identified several genes, also involved in stem cell differentiation, as being differentially methylated in IUGR offspring [10]. From these, RXRA (a binding partner for PPARA), CREBBP (involved in the transcriptional co-activation of numerous transcription factors) and PRR5 (plays a role in platelet-derived growth factor signalling) were also identified in CD3+ T cells from IUGR offspring. In addition, MARK2, CDH12 and TCF3, all Wnt signalling-related genes, were hypermethylated in IUGR offspring in both studies [10]. Wnt signalling has previously been implicated in T cell development, activation and differentiation [38]. MARK2 is downstream of WNT5A, which is involved in inflammatory diseases, metabolic disorders and embryonic development [39, 40]. CDH12 is associated with BMI [41] and also mediates calcium-dependent cell–cell adhesion, which is regulated by the canonical Wnt signalling pathway [42]. Our results further reinforce the possibility that differential methylation of key genes in the Wnt signalling pathway may be important in programming adult disease and may be conserved through differentiation of stem cells. Furthermore, our analysis also showed methylation changes in genes related to the MAPK signalling pathway. Dysregulation of MAPK signalling has been linked to obesity and diabetes and plays a role in insulin signalling [43]. Additionally, PRDM16, a transcription cofactor with an important role in the development of brown adipose tissue in mice [31] and later identified as important for establishment and maintenance of the haematopoietic stem cell pool balance through the regulation of genes and transcription regulators [44] and by regulating reactive oxygen species levels (ROS) [32], was identified as both a DMR and a differentially methylated locus in IUGR. This finding strongly suggests that the epigenetic regulation of PRDM16 may play a role in IUGR-associated metabolic disease susceptibility, including alteration of stem cell populations in multiple organs as well as the level of ROS, known to be elevated in metabolic disease. Therefore the altered methylation status of these genes provides a strong potential for dysregulation of T cell function and activation and may alter stem cell differentiation in individuals subject to IUGR.

We observed alteration in methylation patterns in genes previously associated with obesity and cardiovascular disease pathogenesis: stable methylation of MMP9 in PBLs, which has been associated with increased BMI in obese adults [45]; promoter hypermethylation of LDLR observed in patients with atherosclerosis [46] and for which genome-wide association studies have shown polymorphisms in individuals with coronary artery disease [47] and hypermethylation of GCK [48], FOXP1, MACROD2, JARID2, ZMIZ1 and the maternally imprinted gene, KCNQ1 [49], as a predictor for type 2 diabetes susceptibility. The agreement between our results and those of previous studies suggests that altered methylation of metabolically relevant genes may be one mechanism by which IUGR leads to increased susceptibility to metabolic disease.

Finally, DNMT3B (DNA methyltransferase 3B) was also hypermethylated in IUGR. DNMT3B is responsible for establishing de novo DNA methylation. Previous studies have shown that altered DNMT3B activity is associated with hypermethylation of a key regulator of oxidative capacity, PGC1α (also known as PPARGC1A), in the skeletal muscle of individuals with type 2 diabetes [50]. Thus, epigenetic dysregulation of a key gene involved in DNA methylation patterns identified here in T cells of IUGR neonates as well as skeletal muscle of type 2 diabetic adults reveals DNMT3B to be a potential biomarker for metabolic disease pathogenesis.

Our results demonstrate that poor fetal growth is associated with alterations in DNA methylation profiles in CD3+ T cells. Furthermore, our results are consistent with findings from other cell types in earlier IUGR studies [10, 49]. Using our genome annotation to identify candidate promoters and enhancers in regions of interest, we can narrow the search to relevant changes in methylation that are more likely to have biologically significant downstream consequences.

While our study focused on the associations between IUGR and changes in methylation levels in CD3+ T cells at birth, a key question that remains unaddressed is whether epigenetic dysregulation seen at birth persists into adulthood and plays a causative role in disease pathogenesis. We acknowledge that changes in methylation may not correlate with changes in gene expression and thus we cannot comment on the significance of the DML with respect to their potential to alter CD3+ T cell gene expression. Future studies assessing the transcriptome as well as methylation profiles in specific subpopulations or ratio of CD4+:CD8+ cells present in cord blood will be useful in determining whether abnormal growth in early life can skew differentiation toward specific cell lineages with less favourable sequelae (i.e. greater inflammatory response). In addition, there are no studies to date that longitudinally examine the methylation changes that occur normally from birth through to adolescence and adulthood. Establishing ‘normal’ age-related methylation profiles will enable the identification of perturbed loci during the life course. Finally, although we have focused our attention on methylation changes, clearly the iteration of methylation and DNA sequence variation with other epigenetic regulators contribute to individual phenotype. Indeed, the role of genotype in disease susceptibility is a critical factor. A more comprehensive investigation using a multi-layered approach in a larger number of study participants would be ideal. However, these types of studies are prohibited by cost and are not likely to occur without a concerted effort from large collaborative groups. As such, the DNA methylation signatures described here provide an important framework for investigating candidate loci for more targeted experiments, perhaps to include genotypic variations and/or histone modifications that may contribute to the long-term disease susceptibility seen in adults who had been exposed to IUGR.



This study was supported by the American Diabetes Association (1-13-CE-06, MJC) and the National Institutes of Health (HD063791, FHE). Additional support was generously provided by the Institute of Clinical and Translational Research of AECOM (to MJC). LW was the recipient of a National Institutes of Health, Ruth Kirschstein predoctoral fellowship (F31 DK093332).

Duality of interest

The authors declare that there is no duality of interest associated with this manuscript

Contribution statement

MJC, FHE and MF contributed to the conception and study design, interpretation of data and drafting and revision of the manuscript. LW and YS contributed to the acquisition, analysis and interpretation of data, and drafting and revision of the manuscript. FD contributed to the analysis and interpretation of data and revision of the manuscript. AC contributed to the analysis of the data and revision of the manuscript. All authors approved the final version to be published. MJC is the guarantor of this work.

Supplementary material

125_2016_3983_MOESM1_ESM.pdf (1.9 mb)
ESM (PDF 1899 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • Lyda Williams
    • 1
  • Yoshinori Seki
    • 1
  • Fabien Delahaye
    • 2
  • Alex Cheng
    • 1
  • Mamta Fuloria
    • 3
  • Francine Hughes Einstein
    • 2
  • Maureen J. Charron
    • 1
    • 2
    • 4
    Email author
  1. 1.Department of BiochemistryAlbert Einstein College of MedicineBronxUSA
  2. 2.Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology and Women’s HealthAlbert Einstein College of MedicineBronxUSA
  3. 3.Department of PediatricsAlbert Einstein College of MedicineBronxUSA
  4. 4.Department of Medicine, Division of EndocrinologyAlbert Einstein College of MedicineBronxUSA

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