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DNA methylation

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DNA methylation is a type of chemical modification of DNA that can be inherited without changing the DNA sequence. As such, it is part of the epigenetic code.

DNA methylation involves the addition of a methyl group to DNA — for example, to the number 5 carbon of the cytosine pyrimidine ring.

DNA methylation is probably universal in eukaryotes. In humans, approximately 1% of DNA bases undergo DNA methylation. In adult somatic tissues, DNA methylation typically occurs in a CpG dinucleotide context; non-CpG methylation is prevalent in embryonic stem cells.[1] [2]

In plants, cytosines are methylated both symmetrically (CpG or CpNpG) and asymmetrically (CpNpNp), where N can be any nucleotide.

DNA methylation in mammalsEdit

Between 60-70% of all CpGs are methylated. Unmethylated CpGs are grouped in clusters called "CpG islands" that are present in the 5' regulatory regions of many genes. In many disease processes such as cancer, gene promoter CpG islands acquire abnormal hypermethylation, which results in heritable transcriptional silencing. DNA methylation may impact the transcription of genes in two ways. First, the methylation of DNA may itself physically impede the binding of transcriptional proteins to the gene, thus bocking transcription. Second, and likely more important, methylated DNA may be bound by proteins known as Methyl-CpG-binding domain proteins (MBDs). MBD proteins then recruit additional proteins to the locus, such as histone deacetylases and other chromatin remodelling proteins that can modify histones, thereby forming compact, inactive chromatin termed silent chromatin. This link between DNA methylation and chromatin structure is very important. In particular, loss of Methyl-CpG-binding Protein 2 (MeCP2) has been implicated in Rett syndrome and Methyl-CpG binding domain protein 2 (MBD2) mediates the transcriptional silencing of hypermethylated genes in cancer.

DNA methylation in humansEdit

In humans, the process of DNA methylation is carried out by three enzymes, DNA methyltransferase 1, 3a, and 3b (DNMT1, DNMT3a, DNMT3b). It is thought that DNMT3a and DNMT3b are the de novo methyltransferases that set up DNA methylation patterns early in development. DNMT1 is the proposed maintenance methyltransferase that is responsible for copying DNA methylation patterns to the daughter strands during DNA replication. DNMT3L is a protein that is homologous to the other DNMTs but has no catalytic activity. Instead, DNMT3L assists the de novo methyltransferases by increasing their ability to bind to DNA and stimulating their activity.

Since many tumor suppressor genes are silenced by DNA methylation during carcinogenesis, there have been attempts to re-express these genes by inhibiting the DNMTs. 5-aza-2'-deoxycytidine (decitabine) is a nucleoside analog that inhibits DNMTs by trapping them in a covalent complex on DNA by preventing the β-elimination step of catalysis, thus resulting in the enzymes' degradation. However, for decitabine to be active, it must be incorporated into the genome of the cell, but this can cause mutations in the daughter cells if the cell does not die. Additionally, decitabine is toxic to the bone marrow, which limits the size of its therapeutic window. These pitfalls have led to the development of antisense RNA therapies that target the DNMTs by degrading their mRNAs and preventing their translation. However, it is currently unclear if targeting DNMT1 alone is sufficient to reactivate tumor suppressor genes silenced by DNA methylation.

DNA methylation in plantsEdit

Significant progress has been made in understanding DNA methylation in plants, specifically in the model plant, Arabidopsis thaliana. The principal DNA methyltransferases in A. thaliana, Met1, Cmt3, and Drm2, are similar at a sequence level to the mammalian methyltransferases. Drm2 is thought to participate in de-novo DNA methylation as well as in the maintenance of DNA methylation. Cmt3 and Met1 act principally in the maintenance of DNA methylation.[3] Other DNA methyltransferases are expressed in plants but have no known function (see [1]). The specificity for DNA methyltransferases is thought to be driven by RNA-directed DNA methylation. Specific RNA transcripts are produced from a genomic DNA template. These RNA transcripts may form double-stranded RNA molecules. The double stranded RNAs, through either the small interfering RNA (siRNA) or micro RNA (miRNA) pathways, direct the localization of DNA methyltransferases to specific targets in the genome.[4]


  1. Dodge, Jonathan E., Bernard H. Ramsahoyeb, Z. Galen Woa, Masaki Okanoa, En Li (May 2002). De novo methylation of MMLV provirus in embryonic stem cells: CpG versus non-CpG methylation. Science Direct.
  2. Haines, Thomas R. (Dec 2001). Allele-Specific Non-CpG Methylation of the Nf1 Gene during Early Mouse Development. Science Direct.
  3. Cao, Xiaofeng, Jacobsen, Steven E. (2003 Jul). Locus-specific control of asymmetric and CpNpG methylation by the DRM and CMT3 methyltransferase genes. PNAS.
  4. Aufsatz, Werner, M. Florian Mette, Johannes van der Winden, Antonius J. M. Matzke, Marjori Matzke (2002 Dec). RNA-directed DNA methylation in Arabidopsis. PNAS.

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