Background Mercury (Hg) is a well-recognized environmental pollutant known by its toxicity of development and neurotoxicity, which results in adverse health outcomes. However, the mechanisms underlying the teratogenic effects of Hg are not well understood. Imprinting genes are emerging regulators for fetal development subjecting to environmental pollutants impacts. In this study, we examined the association between preconceptional Hg exposure and the alteration of DNA methylation of imprinting genes H19, Meg3, and Peg3 in human sperm DNA. Methods A total of 616 men, aged from 22 to 59, were recruited from Reproductive Medicine Clinic of Maternal and Child Care Service Center and the Urologic Surgery Clinic of Shanxi Academy of Medical Sciences during April 2015 and March 2016. Demographic information was collected through questionnaires. Urine was collected and urinary Hg concentrations were measured using a fully-automatic double-channel hydride generation atomic fluorescence spectrometer. Methylation of imprinting genes H19, Meg3 and Peg3 of sperm DNA from 242 participants were examined by bisulfite pyrosequencing. Spearman’s rank and multivariate regression analysis were used for correlation analysis between sperm DNA methylation status of imprinting genes and urinary Hg levels. Results The median concentration of Hg for 616 participants was 9.14μg/l (IQR: 5.56–12.52 μg/l; ranging 0.16–71.35μg/l). A total of 42.7% of the participants are beyond normal level for non-occupational exposure according to the criterion of Hg poisoning (10 μg/L). Spearman’s rank analysis indicated a negative correlation between urinary Hg concentrations and average DNA methylation levels of imprinted genes H19 (rs = −0.346, p <0.05), but there was no such a correlation for Peg3 and Meg3. Further, we analyzed the correlation between methylation level at individual CpG site of H19 and urinary Hg level. The results showed a negative correlation between urinary Hg concentrations and three out of seven CpG sites on H19 DMR, namely CpG2 (rs = −0.137, p <0.05), CpG4 (rs = −0.380, p <0.05) and CpG6 (rs = −0.228, p <0.05). After adjusting age, smoking, drinking, intake of aquatic products and education by multivariate regression analysis, the results have confirmed the correlation as mentioned above. Conclusions Mercury non-occupational environmental exposure in reproductive-aged men was associated with altered DNA methylation outcomes at imprinting gene H19 in sperm, implicating the susceptibility of the developing sperm for environmental insults.
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