It is now well established that epigenetic phenomena such as DNA methylation and histone modifications play an important role in gene expression, and alterations in epigenetic states can affect the risk of many diseases. The role of environmental factors, constitutional genotype, and their interactions in determining epigenetic states has been less well studied, however, particularly the potential for epigenetics to serve as a mediator between environmental exposures and disease. Several lines of evidence also suggest that certain environmental exposures can have effects on health outcomes in subsequent generations. This proposal has two broad methodological aims, to develop statistical methods (1) to assess the role of epigenetics in mediating exposure-response relationships within an individual, and (2) to assess its role in mediating transgenerational effects of exposure. For the first of these we will (aim 1a) develop a flexible measurement error framework that can accommodate variation in exposure and methylation over time and relate it to a variety of types of outcomes (binary, continuous, longitudinal, censored time-to-event) and (aim 1b) develop ways of summarizing complex methylation profiles and relating these profiles to both determinants of epigenetic status (environmental and genetic) and to the risk of disease. For the second aim, we will develop a variant of the transmission-disequilibrium test, extending genotypes at a given locus to include epigenetic mark, allowing for transmission of these marks from either parent in a non-Mendelian fashion. The methylation status of parents and offspring will be treated as latent variables that are functions of their own and/or their respective parents'exposures. The statistical performance of these methods will be studied by computer simulation. We will apply these methods to various subsets of participants in the Children's Health Study (CHS) - a long-term cohort study of the chronic effects of air pollution and other exposures like in utero and environmental tobacco smoke in 12,000 school children - for whom DNA are available for global and locus- specific methylation assays;these include neonatal blood spot and later buccal cells for the longitudinal analysis in aim 1 and complete trios with grandmaternal smoking data for aim 2. Our goal is to develop generalizable methodology that will be broadly applicable to studies of environmental epigenetics, using data from the CHS simply as motivation and illustration. For example, we anticipate that these methods could be useful for the analysis of epigenetic data from three-generation subsamples from the National Children's Study.
Epigenetics refers to various changes that can affect the expression of genes without altering their underlying DNA sequence, including DNA methylation, histone alterations, small non-coding RNAs, etc. Despite abundant evidence of their role in many disease processes, the environmental determinants of these epigenetic changes have not been as well studied and little is little known about their role in mediating exposure-response relationships or transmission of exposure effects across generations. This project aims to develop innovative statistical methods to provide epidemiologic investigators with tools for addressing these questions. Unlike DNA mutations, epigenetic changes are potentially reversible, for example, through dietary supplementation with methyl donors or other agents, opening the possibility for population-based interventions to protect against adverse environmental exposures.
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