Cord blood hematopoietic cells from preterm infants display altered DNA methylation patterns
DNA methylation is an epigenetic modification that plays an important role during mammalian development. Around birth in humans, the main site of red blood cell production moves from the fetal liver to the bone marrow. DNA methylation changes at the β-globin locus and a switch from fetal to adult hemoglobin production characterize this transition. Understanding this globin switch may improve the treatment of patients with sickle cell disease and β-thalassemia, two of the most common Mendelian diseases in the world. The goal of our study was to describe and compare the genome-wide patterns of DNA methylation in fetal and adult human erythroblasts. We used the Illumina HumanMethylation 450 k BeadChip to measure DNA methylation at 402,819 CpGs in ex vivo-differentiated erythroblasts from 12 fetal liver and 12 bone marrow CD34+ donors. We identified 5,937 differentially methylated CpGs that overlap with erythroid enhancers and binding sites for erythropoiesis-related transcription factors. Combining this information with genome-wide association study results, we show that erythroid enhancers define particularly promising genomic regions to identify new genetic variants associated with fetal hemoglobin (HbF) levels in humans. Many differentially methylated CpGs are located near genes with unanticipated roles in red blood cell differentiation and proliferation. For some of these new candidate genes, we confirm the correlation between DNA methylation and gene expression levels in red blood cell progenitors. We also provide evidence that DNA methylation and genetic variation at the β-globin locus independently control globin gene expression in adult erythroblasts. Our DNA methylome maps confirm the widespread dynamic changes in DNA methylation that occur during human erythropoiesis. These changes tend to happen near erythroid enhancers, further highlighting their importance in erythroid regulation and HbF production. Finally, DNA methylation may act independently of the transcription factor BCL11A to repress fetal hemoglobin production. This provides cues on strategies to more efficiently re-activate HbF production in sickle cell disease and β-thalassemia patients.