Epigenome-wide association study of DNA methylation and microRNA expression highlights novel pathways for human complex traits

DNA methylation (DNAm) and microRNAs (miRNAs) have been implicated in a wide-range of human diseases. While often studied in isolation, DNAm and miRNAs are not independent. We analyzed associations of expression of 283 miRNAs with DNAm at >400K CpG sites in whole blood obtained from 3565 individuals and identified 227 CpGs at which differential methylation was associated with the expression of 40 nearby miRNAs (cis-miR-eQTMs) at FDR<0.01, including 91 independent CpG sites at r2 < 0.2. cis-miR-eQTMs were enriched for CpGs in promoter and polycomb-repressed state regions, and 60% were inversely associated with miRNA expression. Bidirectional Mendelian randomization (MR) analysis further identified 58 cis-miR-eQTMCpG-miRNA pairs where DNAm changes appeared to drive miRNA expression changes and opposite directional effects were unlikely. Integration of genetic variants in joint analyses revealed an average partial between cis-miR-eQTM CpGs and miRNAs of 2% after conditioning on site-specific genetic variation, suggesting that DNAm is an important epigenetic regulator of miRNA expression. Finally, two-step MR analysis was performed to identify putatively causal CpGs driving miRNA expression in relation to human complex traits. We found that an imprinted region on 14q32 that was previously identified in relation to age at menarche is enriched with cis-miR-eQTMs. Nine CpGs and three miRNAs at this locus tested causal for age at menarche, reflecting novel epigenetic-driven molecular pathways underlying this complex trait. Our study sheds light on the joint genetic and epigenetic regulation of miRNA expression and provides insights into the relations of miRNAs to their targets and to complex phenotypes.