Epidemiology and Population Health

DNA methylome profiling in identical twin pairs discordant for body mass index



Body mass index (BMI) serves as an important measurement of obesity and adiposity, which are highly correlated with cardiometabolic diseases. Although high heritability has been estimated, the identified genetic variants by genetic association studies only explain a small proportion of BMI variation. As an active effort for further exploring the molecular basis of BMI variation, large-scale epigenome-wide association studies have been conducted but with limited number of loci reported, perhaps due to poorly controlled confounding factors, including genetic factors. Being genetically identical, monozygotic twins discordant for BMI are ideal subjects for analyzing the epigenetic association between DNA methylation and BMI, providing perfect control on their genetic makeups largely responsible for BMI variation.


We performed an epigenome-wide association study on BMI using 30 identical twin pairs (15 male and 15 female pairs) with age ranging from 39 to 72 years and degree of BMI discordance ranging from 3–7.5 kg/m2. Methylation data from whole blood samples were collected using the reduced representation bisulfite sequencing technique.


After adjusting for blood cell composition and clinical variables, we identified 136 CpGs with p-value < 1e-4, 30 CpGs with p < 1e-05 but no CpGs reached genome-wide significance. Genomic region-based analysis found 11 differentially methylated regions harboring coding and non-coding genes some of which were validated by gene expression analysis on independent samples.


Our DNA methylation sequencing analysis on identical twins provides new references for the epigenetic regulation on BMI and obesity.

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This project was supported by the EFSD/CDS/Lilly Collaborative Diabetes Research Program (2013), the Lundbeck Foundation [grant number R170-2014-1353]; the DFF research project 1 from the Danish Council for Independent Research, Medical Sciences (DFF-FSS): DFF–6110-00114; the Novo Nordisk Foundation Medical and Natural Sciences Research Grant [grant number NNF13OC0007493, and by the National Natural Science Foundation of China grant # 81773506.

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Correspondence to Qihua Tan.

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Li, W., Zhang, D., Wang, W. et al. DNA methylome profiling in identical twin pairs discordant for body mass index. Int J Obes 43, 2491–2499 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41366-019-0382-4

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