Characterization of tissue-specific differential DNA methylation suggests distinct modes of positive and negative gene expression regulation

Jun Wan, Verity F. Oliver, Guohua Wang, Heng Zhu, Donald J. Zack, Shannath L. Merbs, Jiang Qian

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

70 Scopus citations


Background: DNA methylation plays an important role in regulating gene expression during many biological processes. However, the mechanism of DNA-methylation-dependent gene regulation is not fully understood. Here, we explore two possible DNA methylation regulatory mechanisms with opposite modes of gene expression regulation. Results: By comparing the genome-wide methylation and expression patterns in different tissues, we find that majority of tissue-specific differentially methylated regions (T-DMRs) are negatively correlated with expression of their associated genes (negative T-DMRs), consistent with the classical dogma that DNA methylation suppresses gene expression; however, a significant portion of T-DMRs are positively correlated with gene expression (positive T-DMRs). We observe that the positive T-DMRs have similar genomic location as negative T-DMRs, except that the positive T-DMRs are more enriched in the promoter regions. Both positive and negative T-DMRs are enriched in DNase I hypersensitivity sites (DHSs), suggesting that both are likely to be functional. The CpG sites of both positive and negative T-DMRs are also more evolutionarily conserved than the genomic background. Interestingly, the putative target genes of the positive T-DMR are enriched for negative regulators such as transcriptional repressors, suggesting a novel mode of indirect DNA methylation inhibition of expression through transcriptional repressors. Likewise, two distinct sets of DNA sequence motifs exist for positive and negative T-DMRs, suggesting that two distinct sets of transcription factors (TFs) are involved in positive and negative regulation mediated by DNA methylation. Conclusions: We find both negative and positive association between T-DMRs and gene expression, which implies the existence of two different mechanisms of DNA methylation-dependent gene regulation.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number49
JournalBMC genomics
Issue number1
StatePublished - Feb 5 2015


  • DNA methylation
  • Differentially methylated region
  • Gene regulation
  • Tissue-specific

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biotechnology
  • Genetics


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