Disease variants alter transcription factor levels and methylation of their binding sites

Most disease-associated genetic variants are noncoding, making it challenging to design experiments to understand their functional consequences. Identification of expression quantitative trait loci (eQTLs) has been a powerful approach to infer the downstream effects of disease-associated variants, but most of these variants remain unexplained. The analysis of DNA methylation, a key component of the epigenome, offers highly complementary data on the regulatory potential of genomic regions. Here we show that disease-associated variants have widespread effects on DNA methylation in trans that likely reflect differential occupancy of trans binding sites by cis-regulated transcription factors. Using multiple omics data sets from 3,841 Dutch individuals, we identified 1,907 established trait-associated SNPs that affect the methylation levels of 10,141 different CpG sites in trans (false discovery rate (FDR) < 0.05). These included SNPs that affect both the expression of a nearby transcription factor (such as NFKB1, CTCF and NKX2-3) and methylation of its respective binding site across the genome. Trans methylation QTLs effectively expose the downstream effects of disease-associated variants.


year of publication



  • Nat Genet


  • Bonder, MJ
  • Luijk, R
  • Zhernakova, DV
  • Moed, M
  • Deelen, P
  • Vermaat, M
  • et al.

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