Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterised by phenotypic heterogeneity and overlapping co-morbidities. The genetic architecture of ASD is complex, with 100s of risk genes cumulatively contributing to the aetiology of ASD. Epigenetic mechanisms, particularly DNA methylation, have been associated with ASD. The vast majority of ASD molecular research has focused on Northern European populations, with a paucity of data from Africa. This study examines genome-wide DNA methylation patterns in a novel cohort of South African children with ASD and matched, unrelated controls. We performed a whole-genome DNA methylation screen using the Illumina 450K Human Methylation Array. We identify differentially methylated loci associated with ASD across 898 genes (p-value ≤ 0.05). Using a pathway analysis framework, we find nine enriched canonical pathways implicating 32 of the significant genes in our ASD cohort. These pathways converge on two crucial biological processes: mitochondrial metabolism and protein ubiquitination, both hallmarks of mitochondrial function. The involvement of mitochondrial function in ASD aetiology is in line with the recently reported transcriptomic dysregulation associated with the disorder. The differentially methylated genes in our cohort overlap with the gene co-expression modules identified in brain tissue from five major neurological disorders, including ASD. We find significant enrichment of three gene modules, two of which are classified as Mitochondrial and were significantly downregulated in ASD brains. Furthermore, we find significant overlap between differentially methylated and differentially expressed genes from our dataset with a RNA seq dataset from ASD brain tissue. This overlap is particularly significant across the Occipital brain region (padj= 0.0002) which has known association to ASD. Our differential methylation data recapitulate the expression differences of genes and co-expression module functions observed in ASD brain tissue which is consistent with a central role for DNA-methylation leading to mitochondrial dysfunction in the aetiology of ASD.
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