Permanent changes in brain genes may not be so permanent after all

January 27, 2014

In normal development, all cells turn off genes they don't need, often by attaching a chemical methyl group to the DNA, a process called methylation. Historically, scientists believed methyl groups could only stick to a particular DNA sequence: a cytosine followed by a guanine, called CpG. But in recent years, they have been found on other sequences, and so-called non-CpG methylation has been found in stem cells, and in neurons in the brain.

Now, a team of researchers at Johns Hopkins has discovered that non-CpG methylation occurs later and more dynamically in neurons than previously appreciated, and that it acts as a system of gene regulation, which can be independent of traditional CpG methylation.

In a study described in the January 28 issue of Nature Neuroscience, the Hopkins team describes this new gene control mechanism and how it may contribute to Rett Syndrome, a nervous system disorder affecting mostly girls that causes problems with movement and communication.

The team, led by Hongjun Song, Ph.D., professor of neurology and director of Johns Hopkins Medicine's Institute for Cell Engineering's Stem Cell Program, had found non-CpG methylation prevalent in neurons, a finding that surprised them, since this wasn't found in any other cells besides stem cells.

By looking at what genes were being transcribed in neurons, he and his colleagues found that, like the form of methylation scientists had seen in stem cells, non-CpG methylation stops genes from being expressed. They also mapped the genome to find where non-CpG methylation happens, and found that it carves out its own niche, and are distributed in regions without CpG methlyation. "That was the first hint that maybe it can function independently of CpG methylation," Song says.

The new kind of methylation also seems to operate under different rules. Scientists have long thought methylation was final. Once a cytosine gets a methyl stuck to it, so the story went, that gene is shut off forever. "This became dogma," Song says. "Once cells become the right type, they don't change their identity or DNA methylation."

But non-CpG methylation seems to happen later, when the neuron is mature--and even after conventional wisdom said it was irreversible. The researchers learned this from an experiment in which they knocked out in adult mice the enzymes that attach methyl groups to DNA. They found the neurons still had just as much CpG methylation, but the non-CpG methylation dropped off. This suggests that non-CpG methylation is an active process, Song says, with methyl groups continually being taken off and put back on, adding to evidence that non-CpG methylation may play more of a role in managing operations in mature cells.

The researchers also found a way that non-CpG methylation is similar to CpG methylation in one important way: it's read by MeCP2, an enzyme long identified as a player in methylation.

That's significant because a mutation in MeCP2 causes Rett Syndrome, and understanding DNA methylation is key to understanding this syndrome. The disorder occurs, Song says, when working copies of the gene for MeCP2 are silenced during development.
-end-
Other authors on the paper include Junjie Guo, Yijing Su, Joo Heon Shin, Jaehoon Shin, Bin Xie, Chun Zhong, Shaohui Hu, Heng Zhu, Yuan Gao and Guo-li Ming, all of Johns Hopkins University;Hongda Li and Qiang Chang of the University of Wisconsin-Madison; and Thuc Le and Guoping Fan of University of California Los Angeles.

This research was supported by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NS047344, NS048271 and NS072924), National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (ES021957), the National Institute of Mental Health (MH087874), National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (HD06918, HD064743 and HD066560), the Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative, NARSAD, the Maryland Stem Cell Research Fund (MSCRF) and the Dr. Miriam and Sheldon G. Adelson Medical Research Foundation.

Nature Neuroscience article: http://www.nature.com/neuro/journal/vaop/ncurrent/full/nn.3607.html

Johns Hopkins Medicine

Related Stem Cells Articles from Brightsurf:

SUTD researchers create heart cells from stem cells using 3D printing
SUTD researchers 3D printed a micro-scaled physical device to demonstrate a new level of control in the directed differentiation of stem cells, enhancing the production of cardiomyocytes.

More selective elimination of leukemia stem cells and blood stem cells
Hematopoietic stem cells from a healthy donor can help patients suffering from acute leukemia.

Computer simulations visualize how DNA is recognized to convert cells into stem cells
Researchers of the Hubrecht Institute (KNAW - The Netherlands) and the Max Planck Institute in Münster (Germany) have revealed how an essential protein helps to activate genomic DNA during the conversion of regular adult human cells into stem cells.

First events in stem cells becoming specialized cells needed for organ development
Cell biologists at the University of Toronto shed light on the very first step stem cells go through to turn into the specialized cells that make up organs.

Surprising research result: All immature cells can develop into stem cells
New sensational study conducted at the University of Copenhagen disproves traditional knowledge of stem cell development.

The development of brain stem cells into new nerve cells and why this can lead to cancer
Stem cells are true Jacks-of-all-trades of our bodies, as they can turn into the many different cell types of all organs.

Healthy blood stem cells have as many DNA mutations as leukemic cells
Researchers from the Princess Máxima Center for Pediatric Oncology have shown that the number of mutations in healthy and leukemic blood stem cells does not differ.

New method grows brain cells from stem cells quickly and efficiently
Researchers at Lund University in Sweden have developed a faster method to generate functional brain cells, called astrocytes, from embryonic stem cells.

NUS researchers confine mature cells to turn them into stem cells
Recent research led by Professor G.V. Shivashankar of the Mechanobiology Institute at the National University of Singapore and the FIRC Institute of Molecular Oncology in Italy, has revealed that mature cells can be reprogrammed into re-deployable stem cells without direct genetic modification -- by confining them to a defined geometric space for an extended period of time.

Researchers develop a new method for turning skin cells into pluripotent stem cells
Researchers at the University of Helsinki, Finland, and Karolinska Institutet, Sweden, have for the first time succeeded in converting human skin cells into pluripotent stem cells by activating the cell's own genes.

Read More: Stem Cells News and Stem Cells Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.