Methylation differences reveal heterogeneity in preterm pathophysiology: Results from bipartite network analyses

Suresh K. Bhavnani, Bryant Dang, Varun Kilaru, Maria Caro, Shyam Visweswaran, George Saade, Alicia K. Smith, Ramkumar Menon

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

8 Scopus citations


Recent studies have shown that epigenetic differences can increase the risk of spontaneous preterm birth (PTB). However, little is known about heterogeneity underlying such epigenetic differences, which could lead to hypotheses for biological pathways in specific patient subgroups, and corresponding targeted interventions critical for precision medicine. Using bipartite network analysis of fetal DNA methylation data we demonstrate a novel method for classification of PTB. The data consisted of DNA methylation across the genome (HumanMethylation450 BeadChip) in cord blood from 50 African-American subjects consisting of 22 cases of early spontaneous PTB (24-34 weeks of gestation) and 28 controls (>39 weeks of gestation). These data were analyzed using a combination of (1) a supervised method to select the top 10 significant methylation sites, (2) unsupervised "subject-variable" bipartite networks to visualize and quantitatively analyze how those 10 methylation sites co-occurred across all the subjects, and across only the cases with the goal of analyzing subgroups and their underlying pathways, and (3) a simple linear regression to test whether there was an association between the total methylation in the cases, and gestational age. The bipartite network analysis of all subjects and significant methylation sites revealed statistically significant clustering consisting of an inverse symmetrical relationship in the methylation profiles between a case-enriched subgroup and a control-enriched subgroup: the former was predominantly hypermethylated across seven methylation sites, and hypomethylated across three methylation sites, whereas the latter was predominantly hypomethylated across the above seven methylation sites and hypermethylated across the three methylation sites. Furthermore, the analysis of only cases revealed one subgroup that was predominantly hypomethylated across seven methylation sites, and another subgroup that was hypomethylated across all methylation sites suggesting the presence of heterogeneity in PTB pathophysiology. Finally, the analysis found a strong inverse linear relationship between total methylation and gestational age suggesting that methylation differences could be used as predictive markers for gestational length. The results demonstrate that unsupervised bipartite networks helped to identify a complex but comprehensible data-driven hypotheses related to patient subgroups and inferences about their underlying pathways, and therefore were an effective complement to supervised approaches currently used.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)509-521
Number of pages13
JournalJournal of perinatal medicine
Issue number5
StatePublished - Jul 26 2018


  • Bipartite networks
  • epigenetics
  • network analysis
  • preterm
  • visual analytics
  • visualization

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pediatrics, Perinatology, and Child Health
  • Obstetrics and Gynecology


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