Front Genet 2013 17;4:132. Epub 2013 Jul 17.
Physiology and Experimental Medicine, The Hospital for Sick Children, University of Toronto Toronto, ON, Canada.
DNA methylation is the most studied epigenetic modification, capable of controlling gene expression in the contexts of normal traits or diseases. It is highly dynamic during early embryogenesis and remains relatively stable throughout life, and such patterns are intricately related to human development. DNA methylation is a quantitative trait determined by a complex interplay of genetic and environmental factors. Genetic variants at a specific locus can influence both regional and distant DNA methylation. The environment can have varying effects on DNA methylation depending on when the exposure occurs, such as during prenatal life or during adulthood. In particular, cigarette smoking in the context of both current smoking and prenatal exposure is a strong modifier of DNA methylation. Epigenome-wide association studies have uncovered candidate genes associated with cigarette smoking that have biologically relevant functions in the etiology of smoking-related diseases. As such, DNA methylation is a potential mechanistic link between current smoking and cancer, as well as prenatal cigarette-smoke exposure and the development of adult chronic diseases.