DNA methylation mediates the effect of maternal smoking on offspring birthweight: a birth cohort study of multi-ethnic US mother–newborn pairs

Richard Xu, Xiumei Hong, Boyang Zhang, Wanyu Huang, Wenpin Hou, Guoying Wang, Xiaobin Wang, Tak Igusa, Liming Liang, Hongkai Ji

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background: Maternal smoking affects more than half a million pregnancies each year in the US and is known to result in fetal growth restriction as measured by lower birthweight and its associated long-term consequences. Maternal smoking also has been linked to altered fetal DNA methylation (DNAm). However, what remains largely unexplored is whether these DNAm alterations are merely markers of smoking exposure or if they also have implications for health outcomes. This study tested the hypothesis that fetal DNAm mediates the effect of maternal smoking on newborn birthweight. Methods: This study included mother–newborn pairs from a US predominantly urban, low-income multi-ethnic birth cohort. DNAm in cord blood were determined using the Illumina Infinium MethylationEPIC BeadChip. After standard quality control and normalization procedures, an epigenome-wide association study (EWAS) of maternal smoking was performed using linear regression models, controlling for maternal age, education, race, parity, pre-pregnancy body mass index, alcohol consumption, gestational age, maternal pregestational/gestational diabetes, child sex, cord blood cell compositions and batch effects. To quantify the degree to which cord DNAm mediates the smoking-birthweight association, the VanderWeele-Vansteelandt approach for single mediator and structural equational model for multiple mediators were used, adjusting for pertinent covariates. Results: The study included 954 mother–newborn pairs. Among mothers, 165 (17.3%) ever smoked before or during pregnancy. Newborns with smoking exposure had on average 258 g lower birthweight than newborns without exposure (P < 0.001). Using a false discovery rate (FDR) < 0.05 as the significance cutoff, the EWAS identified 38 differentially methylated CpG sites associated with maternal smoking. Of those, 17 CpG sites were mapped to previously reported genes: GFI1, AHRR, CYP1A1, and CNTNAP2; 8 of those, located in the first three genes, were Bonferroni significantly associated with newborn birthweight and mediated the smoking-birthweight association. The combined mediation effect of the three genes explained 67.8% of the smoking-birthweight association. Conclusions: Our study not only lends further support that maternal smoking alters fetal DNAm in a multiethnic population, but also suggests that fetal DNAm substantially mediates the maternal smoking–birthweight association. Our findings, if further validated, indicate that DNAm modification is likely an important pathway by which maternal smoking impairs fetal growth and, perhaps, even long-term health outcomes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number47
JournalClinical Epigenetics
Issue number1
StatePublished - Dec 2021


  • DNA methylation
  • Epigenome-wide association study
  • Low birthweight
  • Maternal smoking
  • Mediation analysis

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Molecular Biology
  • Genetics
  • Developmental Biology
  • Genetics(clinical)


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