Elucidating cytosine modification differences between human populations can enhance our understanding of ethnic specificity in complex traits. In this study, cytosine modification levels in 133 HapMap lymphoblastoid cell lines derived from individuals of European or African ancestry were profiled using the Illumina HumanMethylation450 BeadChip. Approximately 13% of the analyzed CpG sites showed differential modification between the two populations at a false discovery rate of 1%. The CpG sites with greater modification levels in European descent were enriched in the proximal regulatory regions, while those greater in African descent were biased toward gene bodies. More than half of the detected population-specific cytosine modifications could be explained primarily by local genetic variation. In addition, a substantial proportion of local modification quantitative trait loci exhibited population-specific effects, suggesting that genetic epistasis and/or genotype × environment interactions could be common. Distinct correlations were observed between gene expression levels and cytosine modifications in proximal regions and gene bodies, suggesting epigenetic regulation of interindividual expression variation. Furthermore, quantitative trait loci associated with population-specific modifications can be colocalized with expression quantitative trait loci and single nucleotide polymorphisms previously identified for complex traits with known racial disparities. Our findings revealed abundant population-specific cytosine modifications and the underlying genetic basis, as well as the relatively independent contribution of genetic and epigenetic variations to population differences in gene expression.
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