Preterm birth (PTB), defined as child birth before completion of 37 weeks of gestation, is a major challenge in perinatal health care and can bear long-term medical and financial burden. Over a million children die each year due to PTB complications, and those who survive can face developmental delays. Unfortunately, our understanding of the molecular pathways associated with PTB remains limited. There is a growing body of evidence suggesting the role of DNA methylation (DNAm) in mediating the effects of PTB on future health outcomes. Thus, epigenome-wide association studies (EWAS), where DNAm sites are examined for associations with PTB, can help shed light on the biological mechanisms linking the two.
In an Asian cohort of 1019 infants (68 preterm, 951 full term), we examined and compared the associations between PTB and genome-wide DNAm profiles using both cord tissue (n = 1019) and cord blood (n = 332) samples on Infinium HumanMethylation450 arrays. PTB was significantly associated (P < 5.8e-7) with DNAm at 296 CpGs (209 genes) in the cord blood. Over 95% of these CpGs were replicated in other PTB/gestational age EWAS conducted in (cord) blood. This replication was apparent even across populations of different ethnic origin (Asians, Caucasians, and African Americans). More than a third of these 296 CpGs were replicated in at least 4 independent studies, thereby identifying a robust set of PTB-linked epigenetic signatures in cord blood. Interrogation of cord tissue in addition to cord blood provided novel insights into the epigenetic status of the neonates born preterm. Overall, 994 CpGs (608 genes, P < 3.7e-7) associated with PTB in cord tissue, of which only 10 of these CpGs were identified in the analysis using cord blood. Genes from cord tissue showed enrichment of molecular pathways related to fetal growth and development, while those from cord blood showed enrichment of immune response pathways. A substantial number of PTB-associated CpGs from both the birth tissues were also associated with gestational age.
Our findings provide insights into the epigenetic landscape of neonates born preterm, and that its status is captured more comprehensively by interrogation of more than one neonatal tissue in tandem. Both these neonatal tissues are clinically relevant in their unique ways and require careful consideration in identification of biomarkers related to PTB and gestational age.
This birth cohort is a prospective observational study designed to study the developmental origins of health and disease, and was retrospectively registered on 1 July 2010 under the identifier NCT01174875 .