Short tandem repeats (STRs) contribute significantly to genetic diversity in humans, including disease-causing variation. Although the effect of STR variation on gene expression has been extensively assessed, their impact on epigenetics has been poorly studied and limited to specific genomic regions. Here, we investigated the hypothesis that some STRs act as independent regulators of local DNA methylation in the human genome and modify risk of common human traits. To address these questions, we first analyzed two independent data sets comprising PCR-free whole-genome sequencing (WGS) and genome-wide DNA methylation levels derived from whole-blood samples in 245 (discovery cohort) and 484 individuals (replication cohort). Using genotypes for 131,635 polymorphic STRs derived from WGS using HipSTR, we identified 11,870 STRs that associated with DNA methylation levels (mSTRs) of 11,774 CpGs (Bonferroni P < 0.001) in our discovery cohort, with 90% successfully replicating in our second cohort. Subsequently, through fine-mapping using CAVIAR we defined 585 of these mSTRs as the likely causal variants underlying the observed associations (fm-mSTRs) and linked a fraction of these to previously reported genome-wide association study signals, providing insights into the mechanisms underlying complex human traits. Furthermore, by integrating gene expression data, we observed that 12.5% of the tested fm-mSTRs also modulate expression levels of nearby genes, reinforcing their regulatory potential. Overall, our findings expand the catalog of functional sequence variants that affect genome regulation, highlighting the importance of incorporating STRs in future genetic association analysis and epigenetics data for the interpretation of trait-associated variants.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)184-196
Number of pages13
JournalGenome Research
Issue number2
StatePublished - 2023


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