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Epigenetics. 2015;10(1):19-30. doi: 10.4161/15592294.2014.989077. Epub 2015 Jan 27.

Quality control and statistical modeling for environmental epigenetics: a study on in utero lead exposure and DNA methylation at birth.

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a Department of Environmental Health Sciences ; University of Michigan School of Public Health ; Ann Arbor , MI USA.


DNA methylation data assayed using pyrosequencing techniques are increasingly being used in human cohort studies to investigate associations between epigenetic modifications at candidate genes and exposures to environmental toxicants and to examine environmentally-induced epigenetic alterations as a mechanism underlying observed toxicant-health outcome associations. For instance, in utero lead (Pb) exposure is a neurodevelopmental toxicant of global concern that has also been linked to altered growth in human epidemiological cohorts; a potential mechanism of this association is through alteration of DNA methylation (e.g., at growth-related genes). However, because the associations between toxicants and DNA methylation might be weak, using appropriate quality control and statistical methods is important to increase reliability and power of such studies. Using a simulation study, we compared potential approaches to estimate toxicant-DNA methylation associations that varied by how methylation data were analyzed (repeated measures vs. averaging all CpG sites) and by method to adjust for batch effects (batch controls vs. random effects). We demonstrate that correcting for batch effects using plate controls yields unbiased associations, and that explicitly modeling the CpG site-specific variances and correlations among CpG sites increases statistical power. Using the recommended approaches, we examined the association between DNA methylation (in LINE-1 and growth related genes IGF2, H19 and HSD11B2) and 3 biomarkers of Pb exposure (Pb concentrations in umbilical cord blood, maternal tibia, and maternal patella), among mother-infant pairs of the Early Life Exposures in Mexico to Environmental Toxicants (ELEMENT) cohort (n = 247). Those with 10 μg/g higher patella Pb had, on average, 0.61% higher IGF2 methylation (P = 0.05). Sex-specific trends between Pb and DNA methylation (P < 0.1) were observed among girls including a 0.23% increase in HSD11B2 methylation with 10 μg/g higher patella Pb.


ANOVA, analysis of variance; DMR, differentially methylated region; DNA methylation; ELEMENT, early life exposures in Mexico to environmental toxicants; GEE, generalized estimating equation; GLM, general linear model; H19, H19, imprinted maternally expressed transcript (non-protein coding); HSD11B2, hydroxysteroid (11-β) dehydrogenase 2; IGF2, insulin-like growth factor 2; K-XRF, K X-ray fluorescence; LINE-1, long interspersed element-1; OLS, ordinary linear regression; PCR, polymerase chain reaction; Pb, lead; environmental exposure; lead; pyrosequencing; quality control; statistical methods

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