Background: An increased incidence of imprint-associated disorders has been reported in babies born from assisted reproductive technology (ART). However, previous studies supporting an association between ART and an altered DNA methylation status of the conceived babies have been often conducted on a limited number of methylation sites and without correction for critical potential confounders. Moreover, all the previous studies focused on the identification of methylation changes shared among subjects while an evaluation of stochastic differences has never been conducted. This study aims to evaluate the effect of ART and other common behavioral or environmental factors associated with pregnancy on stochastic epigenetic variability using a multivariate approach.
Results: DNA methylation levels of cord blood from 23 in vitro and 41 naturally conceived children were analyzed using the Infinium HumanMethylation450 BeadChips. After multiple testing correction, no statistically significant difference emerged in the number of cord blood stochastic epigenetic variations or in the methylation levels between in vitro- and in vivo-conceived babies. Conversely, four multiple factor analysis dimensions summarizing common phenotypic, behavioral, or environmental factors (cord blood cell composition, pre or post conception supplementation of folates, birth percentiles, gestational age, cesarean section, pre-gestational mother's weight, parents' BMI and obesity status, presence of adverse pregnancy outcomes, mother's smoking status, and season of birth) were significantly associated with stochastic epigenetic variability. The stochastic epigenetic variation analysis allowed the identification of a rare imprinting defect in the locus GNAS in one of the babies belonging to the control population, which would not have emerged using a classical case-control association analysis.
Conclusions: We confirmed the effect of several common behavioral or environmental factors on the epigenome of newborns and described for the first time an epigenetic effect related to season of birth. Children born after ART did not appear to have an increased risk of genome-wide changes in DNA methylation either at specific loci or randomly scattered throughout the genome. The inability to identify differences between cases and controls suggests that the number of stochastic epigenetic variations potentially induced by ART was not greater than that naturally produced in response to maternal behavior or other common environmental factors.