Background: Uncovering mechanisms of epigenome evolution is an essential step towards understanding the evolution of different cellular phenotypes. While studies have confirmed DNA methylation as a conserved epigenetic mechanism in mammalian development, little is known about the conservation of tissue-specific genome-wide DNA methylation patterns. Results: Using a comparative epigenomics approach, we identified and compared the tissue-specific DNA methylation patterns of rat against those of mouse and human across three shared tissue types. We confirmed that tissue-specific differentially methylated regions are strongly associated with tissue-specific regulatory elements. Comparisons between species revealed that at a minimum 11-37% of tissue-specific DNA methylation patterns are conserved, a phenomenon that we define as epigenetic conservation. Conserved DNA methylation is accompanied by conservation of other epigenetic marks including histone modifications. Although a significant amount of locus-specific methylation is epigenetically conserved, the majority of tissue-specific DNA methylation is not conserved across the species and tissue types that we investigated. Examination of the genetic underpinning of epigenetic conservation suggests that primary sequence conservation is a driving force behind epigenetic conservation. In contrast, evolutionary dynamics of tissue-specific DNA methylation are best explained by the maintenance or turnover of binding sites for important transcription factors. Conclusions: Our study extends the limited literature of comparative epigenomics and suggests a new paradigm for epigenetic conservation without genetic conservation through analysis of transcription factor binding sites.

Original languageEnglish
Article number724
JournalBMC genomics
Issue number1
StatePublished - Sep 12 2017


  • Comparative epigenomics
  • Comparative genomics
  • DNA methylation
  • Epigenetic conservation
  • Tissue-specific


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