Saliva cell type DNA methylation reference panel for epidemiological studies in children

Lauren Y.M. Middleton, John Dou, Jonah Fisher, Jonathan A. Heiss, Vy K. Nguyen, Allan C. Just, Jessica Faul, Erin B. Ware, Colter Mitchell, Justin A. Colacino, Kelly M. Bakulski

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

24 Scopus citations


Saliva is a widely used biological sample, especially in pediatric research, containing a heterogenous mixture of immune and epithelial cells. Associations of exposure or disease with saliva DNA methylation can be influenced by cell-type proportions. Here, we developed a saliva cell-type DNA methylation reference panel to estimate interindividual cell-type heterogeneity in whole saliva studies. Saliva was collected from 22 children (7–16 years) and sorted into immune and epithelial cells, using size exclusion filtration and magnetic bead sorting. DNA methylation was measured using the Illumina MethylationEPIC BeadChip. We assessed cell-type differences in DNA methylation profiles and tested for enriched biological pathways. Immune and epithelial cells differed at 181,577 (22.8%) DNA methylation sites (t-test p < 6.28 × 10−8). Immune cell hypomethylated sites are mapped to genes enriched for immune pathways (p < 3.2 × 10−5). Epithelial cell hypomethylated sites were enriched for cornification (p = 5.2 × 10−4), a key process for hard palette formation. Saliva immune and epithelial cells have distinct DNA methylation profiles which can drive whole-saliva DNA methylation measures. A primary saliva DNA methylation reference panel, easily implemented with an R package, will allow estimates of cell proportions from whole saliva samples and improve epigenetic epidemiology studies by accounting for measurement heterogeneity by cell-type proportions.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)161-177
Number of pages17
Issue number2
StatePublished - 2022


  • DNA methylation
  • cell type reference
  • cellular heterogeneity
  • epigenetics
  • saliva


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