Maternal SARS-CoV-2 exposure alters infant DNA methylation

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Background: Infection during pregnancy can increase the risk of neurodevelopmental disorders in offspring. The impact of maternal SARS-CoV-2 infection on infant neurodevelopment is poorly understood. The maternal immune response to infection may be mimicked in rodent models of maternal immune activation which recapitulate altered neurodevelopment and behavioural disturbances in the offspring. In these models, epigenetic mechanisms, in particular DNA methylation, are one pathway through which this risk is conferred in utero to offspring. We hypothesised that in utero exposure to SARS-CoV-2 in humans may alter infant DNA methylation, particularly in genes associated with neurodevelopment. We aimed to test this hypothesis in a pilot sample of children in Victoria, Australia, who were exposed in utero to SARS-CoV-2. Methods: DNA was extracted from buccal swab specimens from (n = 4) SARS-CoV-2 in utero exposed and (n = 4) non-exposed infants and methylation status assessed across 850,000 methylation sites using an Illumina EPIC BeadChip. We also conducted an exploratory enrichment analysis using Gene Ontology annotations. Results: 1962 hypermethylated CpG sites were identified with an unadjusted p-value of 0.05, where 1133 CpGs mapped to 959 unique protein coding genes, and 716 hypomethylated CpG sites mapped to 559 unique protein coding genes in SARS-CoV-2 exposed infants compared to non-exposed. One differentially methylated position (cg06758191), located in the gene body of AFAP1 that was hypomethylated in the SARS-CoV-2 exposed cohort was significant after correction for multiple testing (FDR-adjusted p-value <0.00083). Two significant differentially methylated regions were identified; a hypomethylated intergenic region located in chromosome 6p proximal to the genes ZP57 and HLA-F (fwer <0.004), and a hypomethylated region in the promoter and body of the gene GAREM2 (fwer <0.036). Gene network enrichment analysis revealed differential methylation in genes corresponding to pathways relevant to neurodevelopment, including the ERBB pathway. Conclusion: These pilot data suggest that exposure to SARS-CoV-2 in utero differentially alters methylation of genes in pathways that play a role in human neurodevelopment.

Original languageEnglish
Article number100572
Number of pages6
JournalBrain, Behavior, & Immunity - Health
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2023


  • DNA methylation
  • In utero
  • Maternal
  • Neurodevelopment
  • SARS-CoV-2

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