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Clin Epigenetics. 2019 Jan 5;11(1):1. doi: 10.1186/s13148-018-0606-9.

Epigenome-wide association study of serum cotinine in current smokers reveals novel genetically driven loci.

Author information

Institute for Molecular Medicine Finland (FIMM), University of Helsinki, Helsinki, Finland.
Department of Biological Psychology, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, Amsterdam, Netherlands.
Institute for Molecular Medicine Finland (FIMM), University of Helsinki, Helsinki, Finland.
Campbell Family Mental Health Research Institute, Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, and Departments of Pharmacology & Toxicology and Psychiatry, University of Toronto, Toronto, Canada.
Department of Public Health, University of Helsinki, Helsinki, Finland.
Department of Pathology, University of Helsinki, Helsinki, Finland.



DNA methylation alteration extensively associates with smoking and is a plausible link between smoking and adverse health. We examined the association between epigenome-wide DNA methylation and serum cotinine levels as a proxy of nicotine exposure and smoking quantity, assessed the role of SNPs in these associations, and evaluated molecular mediation by methylation in a sample of biochemically verified current smokers (N = 310).


DNA methylation at 50 CpG sites was associated (FDR < 0.05) with cotinine levels, 17 of which are novel associations. As cotinine levels are influenced not only by nicotine intake but also by CYP2A6-mediated nicotine metabolism rate, we performed secondary analyses adjusting for genetic risk score of nicotine metabolism rate and identified five additional novel associations. We further assessed the potential role of genetic variants in the detected association between methylation and cotinine levels observing 124 cis and 3898 trans methylation quantitative trait loci (meQTLs). Nineteen of these SNPs were also associated with cotinine levels (FDR < 0.05). Further, at seven CpG sites, we observed a trend (P < 0.05) that altered DNA methylation mediates the effect of SNPs on nicotine exposure rather than a direct consequence of smoking. Finally, we performed replication of our findings in two independent cohorts of biochemically verified smokers (N = 450 and N = 79).


Using cotinine, a biomarker of nicotine exposure, we replicated and extended identification of novel epigenetic associations in smoking-related genes. We also demonstrated that DNA methylation in some of the identified loci is driven by the underlying genotype and may mediate the causal effect of genotype on cotinine levels.


Causal inference; Cotinine; Epigenome-wide association study; Genetic risk score; Molecular mediation; Nicotine metabolism; Smoking; meQTL

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