Rare Genetic Variants Underlie Outlying levels of DNA Methylation and Gene-Expression
Testing the effect of rare variants on phenotypic variation is difficult due to the need for extremely large cohorts to identify associated variants given expected effect sizes. An alternative approach is to investigate the effect of rare genetic variants on low-level genomic traits, such as gene expression or DNA methylation (DNAm), as effect sizes are expected to be larger for low-level compared to higher-order complex traits. Here, we investigate DNAm in healthy ageing populations - the Lothian Birth cohorts of 1921 and 1936 and identify both transient and stable outlying DNAm levels across the genome. We find an enrichment of rare genetic variants within 1kb of DNAm sites in individuals with stable outlying DNAm, implying genetic control of this extreme variation. Using a family-based cohort, the Brisbane Systems Genetics Study, we observed increased sharing of DNAm outliers among more closely related individuals, consistent with these outliers being driven by rare genetic variation. We demonstrated that outlying DNAm levels have a functional consequence on gene expression levels, with extreme levels of DNAm being associated with gene expression levels towards the tails of the population distribution. Overall, this study demonstrates the role of rare variants in the phenotypic variation of low-level genomic traits, and the effect of extreme levels of DNAm on gene expression.