The value of twins in epigenetic epidemiology

Jordana T Bell, Richard Saffery
International Journal of Epidemiology 2012, 41 (1): 140-50
During past decades, twin studies have played an important role in genetic epidemiology studies of complex traits. The strength of twin studies lies in the ability to disentangle genetic and environmental factors that contribute to a phenotype, by comparing genetically identical monozygotic twins to dizygotic twins, who share on average 50% of genetic variants. Twin studies now offer the opportunity to study epigenetic variation across the genome with two aims. First, twin studies can improve our understanding of the factors regulating epigenetic variability by assessing the heritability of epigenetic variants. Secondly, the use of twins in epigenetic research is increasingly recognized as an important approach to help unravel the complexities associated with human development and disease. The strategic use of identical twins discordant for complex disease has revealed the importance of linking epigenetic disruption to the disease-associated risk in humans. Lastly, we also discuss the possibility that epigenetic effects on disease may in part explain some of the missing heritability in genome-wide association studies. The study of human epigenetic factors in twins can inform the role of genetics, as well as in utero and postnatal environments to the establishment, maintenance and functional consequences of human epigenome variation.

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