Unanticipated Consequences of DNA Hypomethylation; Loss and Gain of Polycomb Mediated Transcription Repression in Somatic Cells
News Apr 01, 2013
Unanticipated consequences of DNA hypomethylation; loss and gain of Polycomb mediated transcription repression in somatic cells.
Text book DNA biology describes a genetic code comprising of four DNA bases (A,C,T,G ) and a 5th chemically modified (methylated) base 5-methylcytosine (5mC). The presence of the 5mC base at cytosine rich gene promoters (CpG islands) is highly correlated with transcriptional silencing. Non-methylated CpG island genes are usually highly expressed in cells, but a fraction of these genes can be regulated by a separate regulatory system that does not involve 5mC, termed Polycomb. In this case instead of adding a modification to DNA, it can add methyl groups to a protein closely associated with DNA that also results in gene silencing. Specifically lysine 27 (K27) on histone H3 becomes tri-methylated resulting in H3K27me3 at silenced CpG islands. Polycomb and DNA methylation have always been thought to work independently at CpG islands. However a genome wide study by Reddington, Meehan and co-authors suggests that these mechanisms are more closely linked than previously appreciated. Meehan and co-authors examined the 5mC and histone H3K27me3 profile in cells that have reduced levels of DNA methylation. Essentially they observed many normally non-5mC marked CpG island genes loose Polycomb marks in hypomethylated cells; leading to gene activation without changes in DNA methylation. This accounts for around a third of the increased expression observed in hypomethylated cells, suggesting that participating in Polycomb mediated repression is also a major function for DNA methylation in gene regulation. They hypothesise that loss of methylation throughout the genome creates new, more attractive, ‘landing sites’ for Polycomb. They show that in the hypomethylated cells the Polycomb repression machinery migrates to these new landing sites and can cause de novo silencing of adjacent genes. Frequent observations in cancers are DNA hypomethylation of large genomic domains and hypermethylation of CpG islands. It will be intriguing to investigate the effect of DNA methylation redistribution on Polycomb targeting in cancer cells, and its downstream effect on gene expression. Indeed, new domains of H3K27me3 have been observed in breast cancer cell lines in regions that become DNA hypomethylated.
A systems level understanding of chromatin structure requires a detailed comprehension of the functional relationships between epigenetic mechanisms, in addition to the roles of the individual mechanisms themselves. The Meehan lab undertook a systematic genomics approach to investigate the emerging functional relationships between DNA methylation and the Polycomb repressor system; two essential epigenetic mechanisms involved in the gene silencing. By genome-wide mapping of the Polycomb Repressive Complex 2 (PRC2)-signature histone mark, H3K27me3, in DNA methylation-deficient mouse somatic cells, James Reddington and colleagues show that loss of DNA methylation leads to widespread H3K27me3 redistribution, consistent with the DNA methylome being an important factor in the targeting of the PRC2 complex throughout the genome. Unexpectedly, in addition to increased H3K27me3 at previously highly DNA methylated genomic regions, they observe a striking loss of H3K27me3 and PRC2 from its normal target gene promoters, including Hox gene clusters. Importantly, we show that many of these genes become ectopically expressed in DNA methylation-deficient cells, consistent with loss of Polycomb-mediated gene repression. They propose that an intact DNA methylome is required for appropriate Polycomb-mediated gene repression by constraining PRC2 targeting. These observations identify a novel functional relationship between DNA methylation and the Polycomb system in gene regulation and will influence our understanding of how these epigenetic mechanisms contribute to normal development and disease.
This study was funded by the Medical Research Council (UK) at the MRC Human Genetics Unit at the IGMM in at Edinburgh University.
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