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Molecular clocks that record cell ancestry mutate too slowly to measure the short-timescale dynamics of cell renewal in adult tissues. Here, we show that fluctuating DNA methylation marks can be used as clocks in cells where ongoing methylation and demethylation cause repeated ‘flip–flops’ between methylated and unmethylated states. We identify endogenous fluctuating CpG (fCpG) sites using standard methylation arrays and develop a mathematical model to quantitatively measure human adult stem cell dynamics from these data. Small intestinal crypts were inferred to contain slightly more stem cells than the colon, with slower stem cell replacement in the small intestine. Germline APC mutation increased the number of replacements per crypt. In blood, we measured rapid expansion of acute leukemia and slower growth of chronic disease. Thus, the patterns of human somatic cell birth and death are measurable with fluctuating methylation clocks (FMCs).

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Journal article


Nature Biotechnology

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