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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

The causal effect of red blood cell folate on genome-wide methylation in cord blood: a Mendelian randomization approach

Alexandra M Binder1* and Karin B Michels12

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Epidemiology, Harvard School of Public Health, Boston, MA, USA

2 Obstetrics and Gynecology Epidemiology Center, Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA, USA

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BMC Bioinformatics 2013, 14:353  doi:10.1186/1471-2105-14-353

Published: 4 December 2013

Abstract

Background

Investigation of the biological mechanism by which folate acts to affect fetal development can inform appraisal of expected benefits and risk management. This research is ethically imperative given the ubiquity of folic acid fortified products in the US. Considering that folate is an essential component in the one-carbon metabolism pathway that provides methyl groups for DNA methylation, epigenetic modifications provide a putative molecular mechanism mediating the effect of folic acid supplementation on neonatal and pediatric outcomes.

Results

In this study we use a Mendelian Randomization Unnecessary approach to assess the effect of red blood cell (RBC) folate on genome-wide DNA methylation in cord blood. Site-specific CpG methylation within the proximal promoter regions of approximately 14,500 genes was analyzed using the Illumina Infinium Human Methylation27 Bead Chip for 50 infants from the Epigenetic Birth Cohort at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. Using methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase genotype as the instrument, the Mendelian Randomization approach identified 7 CpG loci with a significant (mostly positive) association between RBC folate and methylation level. Among the genes in closest proximity to this significant subset of CpG loci, several enriched biologic processes were involved in nucleic acid transport and metabolic processing. Compared to the standard ordinary least squares regression method, our estimates were demonstrated to be more robust to unmeasured confounding.

Conclusions

To the authors’ knowledge, this is the largest genome-wide analysis of the effects of folate on methylation pattern, and the first to employ Mendelian Randomization to assess the effects of an exposure on epigenetic modifications. These results can help guide future analyses of the causal effects of periconceptional folate levels on candidate pathways.

Keywords:
Mendelian randomization; DNA methylation; Folate; Epigenomic epidemiology