Background:DNA methylation is involved in the regulation of gene expression. Although bisulfite-sequencing based methods profile DNA methylation at a single CpG resolution, methylation levels are usually averaged over genomic regions in the downstream bioinformatic analysis.
Results:We demonstrate that on the genome level a single CpG methylation can serve as a more accurate predictor of gene expression than an average promoter / gene body methylation. We define CpG traffic lights (CpG TL) as CpG dinucleotides with a significant correlation between methylation and expression of a gene nearby. CpG TL are enriched in all regulatory regions. Among all promoters, CpG TL are especially enriched in poised ones, suggesting involvement of DNA methylation in their regulation. Yet, binding of only a handful of transcription factors, such as NRF1, ETS, STAT and IRF-family members, could be regulated by direct methylation of transcription factor binding sites (TFBS) or its close proximity. For the majority of TF, an alternative scenario is more likely: methylation and inactivation of the whole regulatory element indirectly represses functional TF binding with a CpG TL being a reliable marker of such inactivation.
Conclusions: CpG TL provide a promising insight into mechanisms of enhancer activity and gene regulation linking methylation of single CpG to gene expression. CpG TL methylation can be used as reliable markers of enhancer activity and gene expression in applications, e.g. in clinic where measuring DNA methylation is easier compared to directly measuring gene expression due to more stable nature of DNA.