Brief Bioinform. 2021 Aug 19:bbab323. doi: 10.1093/bib/bbab323. Online ahead of print.
DNA methylation may be regulated by genetic variants within a genomic region, referred to as methylation quantitative trait loci (mQTLs). The changes of methylation levels can further lead to alterations of gene expression, and influence the risk of various complex human diseases. Detecting mQTLs may provide insights into the underlying mechanism of how genotypic variations may influence the disease risk. In this article, we propose a methylation random field (MRF) method to detect mQTLs by testing the association between the methylation level of a CpG site and a set of genetic variants within a genomic region. The proposed MRF has two major advantages over existing approaches. First, it uses a beta distribution to characterize the bimodal and interval properties of the methylation trait at a CpG site. Second, it considers multiple common and rare genetic variants within a genomic region to identify mQTLs. Through simulations, we demonstrated that the MRF had improved power over other existing methods in detecting rare variants of relatively large effect, especially when the sample size is small. We further applied our method to a study of congenital heart defects with 83 cardiac tissue samples and identified two mQTL regions, MRPS10 and PSORS1C1, which were colocalized with expression QTL in cardiac tissue. In conclusion, the proposed MRF is a useful tool to identify novel mQTLs, especially for studies with limited sample sizes.