Expression discordance of monozygotic twins at birth Effect of intrauterine environment and a possible mechanism for fetal programming
Gordon, L; Joo, JHE; Andronikos, R; Ollikainen, M; Wallace, EM; Umstad, MP; Permezel, M; Oshlack, A; Morley, R; Carlin, JB; Saffery, R; Smyth, GK; Craig, JM
Within-pair comparison of monozygotic (MZ) twins provides an ideal model for studying factors that regulate epigenetic profile, by controlling for genetic variation. Previous reports have demonstrated epigenetic variability within MZ pairs, but the contribution of early life exposures to this variation remains unclear. As epigenetic marks govern gene expression, we have used gene expression discordance as a proxy measure of epigenetic discordance in MZ twins at birth in two cell types. We found strong evidence of expression discordance at birth in both cell types and some evidence for higher discordance in twin pairs with separate placentas. Genes previously defined as being involved in response to the external environment showed the most variable expression within pairs, independent of cell type, supporting the idea that even slight differences in intrauterine environment can influence expression profile. Focusing on birthweight, previously identified as a predisposing factor for cardiovascular, metabolic and other complex diseases, and using a statistical model that estimated association based on within-pair variation of expression and birthweight, we found some association between birthweight and expression of genes involved in metabolism and cardiovascular function. This study is the first to examine expression discordance in newborn twins. It provides evidence of a link between birthweight and activity of specific cellular pathways and, as evidence points to gene expression profiles being maintained through cell division by epigenetic factors, provides a plausible biological mechanism for the previously described link between low birthweight and increased risk of later complex disease.