Higher maternal plasma glucose (PG) concentrations, even below gestational diabetes mellitus (GDM) thresholds, are associated with adverse offspring outcomes, with DNA methylation proposed as a mediating mechanism. Here, we examined the relationships between maternal dysglycaemia at 24 to 28 weeks’ gestation and DNA methylation in neonates and whether a dietary and physical activity intervention in pregnant women with obesity modified the methylation signatures associated with maternal dysglycaemia.
Methods and findings
We investigated 557 women, recruited between 2009 and 2014 from the UK Pregnancies Better Eating and Activity Trial (UPBEAT), a randomised controlled trial (RCT), of a lifestyle intervention (low glycaemic index (GI) diet plus physical activity) in pregnant women with obesity (294 contol, 263 intervention). Between 27 and 28 weeks of pregnancy, participants had an oral glucose (75 g) tolerance test (OGTT), and GDM diagnosis was based on diagnostic criteria recommended by the International Association of Diabetes and Pregnancy Study Groups (IADPSG), with 159 women having a diagnosis of GDM. Cord blood DNA samples from the infants were interrogated for genome-wide DNA methylation levels using the Infinium Human MethylationEPIC BeadChip array. Robust regression was carried out, adjusting for maternal age, smoking, parity, ethnicity, neonate sex, and predicted cell-type composition. Maternal GDM, fasting glucose, 1-h, and 2-h glucose concentrations following an OGTT were associated with 242, 1, 592, and 17 differentially methylated cytosine-phosphate-guanine (dmCpG) sites (false discovery rate (FDR) ≤ 0.05), respectively, in the infant’s cord blood DNA. The most significantly GDM-associated CpG was cg03566881 located within the leucine-rich repeat-containing G-protein coupled receptor 6 (LGR6) (FDR = 0.0002). Moreover, we show that the GDM and 1-h glucose-associated methylation signatures in the cord blood of the infant appeared to be attenuated by the dietary and physical activity intervention during pregnancy; in the intervention arm, there were no GDM and two 1-h glucose-associated dmCpGs, whereas in the standard care arm, there were 41 GDM and 160 1-h glucose-associated dmCpGs. A total of 87% of the GDM and 77% of the 1-h glucose-associated dmCpGs had smaller effect sizes in the intervention compared to the standard care arm; the adjusted r2 for the association of LGR6 cg03566881 with GDM was 0.317 (95% confidence interval (CI) 0.012, 0.022) in the standard care and 0.240 (95% CI 0.001, 0.015) in the intervention arm. Limitations included measurement of DNA methylation in cord blood, where the functional significance of such changes are unclear, and because of the strong collinearity between treatment modality and severity of hyperglycaemia, we cannot exclude that treatment-related differences are potential confounders.
Maternal dysglycaemia was associated with significant changes in the epigenome of the infants. Moreover, we found that the epigenetic impact of a dysglycaemic prenatal maternal environment appeared to be modified by a lifestyle intervention in pregnancy. Further research will be needed to investigate possible medical implications of the findings.