Bell CG, Wilson GA, Butcher LM, Roos C, Walter L, Beck S
Regulatory change has long been hypothesized to drive the delineation of the human phenotype from other closely related primates. Here we provide evidence that CpG dinucleotides play a special role in this process. CpGs enable epigenome variability via DNA methylation, and this epigenetic mark functions as a regulatory mechanism. Therefore, species-specific CpGs may influence species-specific regulation. We report non-polymorphic species-specific CpG dinucleotides (termed "CpG beacons") as a distinct genomic feature associated with CpG island (CGI) evolution, human traits and disease. Using an inter-primate comparison, we identified 21 extreme CpG beacon clusters (≥ 20/kb peaks, empirical p < 1.0 × 10(-3)) in humans, which include associations with four monogenic developmental and neurological disease related genes (Benjamini-Hochberg corrected p = 6.03 × 10(-3)). We also demonstrate that beacon-mediated CpG density gain in CGIs correlates with reduced methylation in these species in orthologous CGIs over time, via human, chimpanzee and macaque MeDIP-seq. Therefore mapping into both the genomic and epigenomic space the identified CpG beacon clusters define points of intersection where a substantial two-way interaction between genetic sequence and epigenetic state has occurred. Taken together, our data support a model for CpG beacons to contribute to CGI evolution from genesis to tissue-specific to constitutively active CGIs.