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DNA methylation is the most widely studied of epigenetic mechanisms, with environmental effects recorded through patterned attachments of methyl groups along the DNA that are capable of modifying gene expression without altering the DNA sequencing. The degree to which these patterns of DNA methylation are heritable, the expected range of normality across populations, and the phenotypic relevance of pattern variation remain unclear. Genes regulating metabolic pathways appear to be vulnerable to ongoing nutritional programming over the life course, as dietary nutrients are significant environmental determinants of DNA methylation, supplying both the methyl groups and energy to generate the methylation process.

Here we examine methylation patterns along a region of the metabolic gene leptin (LEP). LEP’s putative functions include regulation of energy homeostasis, with its signals affecting energy intake and expenditure, adipogenesis and energy storage, lipid and glucose metabolism, bone metabolism, and reproductive endocrine function. A pattern of differential methylation across CpG sites of the LEP core promoter has been previously identified; however, any consistency of pattern or its phenotypic significance is not fully elucidated among populations. Using DNA extracted from unfractionated white blood cells of peripheral blood samples, our pilot study, divided into two parts, examined the significance of variation in DNA methylation patterns along the leptin core promoter in four populations (phase 1) and used biomarkers reflecting leptin’s functional process in two of those populations, western Buryat of Siberia and the Mennonite of central Kansas, to investigate the relevance of the ethnic variation identified in the DNA methylation (phase 2).

LEP’s core promoter region contains both the binding site for C/EBPα (CCAAT/enhancer binding protein alpha), which tempers the final step in adipocyte maturity and capacity to synthesize leptin, and the TATA motif controlling leptin synthesis. Previous studies report that increased methylation in this region is correlated to decreased gene expression, suggesting tissue-specific methylation variation at this region (Melzner et al. 2002). We hypothesized that evidence of nutritional epigenetic programming would be identified through variation in patterns of DNA methylation and that functional relevance of that variation among populations would be identified through biomarkers that reflect leptin’s metabolic signals: serum leptin levels, lipoproteins of the lipid transport system, and anthropometric measures.

In phase 1, our combined analyses of 313 individuals documented a distinct and consistent overall pattern of differential DNA methylation across seven CpG sites of LEP core promoter in all ethnicities and both sexes. This pattern replicates those identified in previous studies, suggesting a conserved core promoter region across populations. Phase 2 analyses of two of the four populations (n = 239), correlating methylation at the C/EBPα transcription binding site (TBS) with metabolic and anthropometric biomarkers reflecting LEP roles, showed that stature, which reflects bone growth and remodeling, was significantly and inversely correlated with the percentage of DNA methylation at this site in both sexes. We suggest that variation in DNA methylation along the LEP core promoter plays a substantial role in energy signals affecting both adipogenesis and bone metabolism.