Regulators of DNA methylation in mammalian cells
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Although the many cells within a mammal share the same DNA sequence, their gene expression programmes are highly heterogeneous, and their functions correspondingly diverse. This heterogeneity within an isogenic population of cells arises in part from the ability of each cell to respond to its immediate surroundings via a network of signalling pathways. However, this is not sufficient to explain many of the transcriptional and functional differences between cells, particularly those that are more stable, or, indeed, differences in expression between parental alleles within the same cell. This conundrum lead to the emergence of the field of epigenetics - the study of heritable changes in gene expression independent of DNA sequence. Such changes are dependent on “epigenetic modifications”, of which DNA methylation is one of the best characterised, and is associated with gene silencing. The establishment of correct DNA methylation patterns is particularly important during early development, leading to cell type specific and parental allele specific gene regulation. Besides DNA methyltransferases, various other proteins have recently been implicated in DNA methylation. The absence of these proteins leads to defects in DNA methylation and development that can be even more severe than those in DNA methyltransferase knockouts themselves. In this study I focus on three such accessory proteins: LSH (a putative chromatin remodelling ATPase), G9a (a histone lysine methyltransferase) and SmcHD1 (a structural maintenance of chromosomes protein). To compare DNA methylation between WT cells and cells knocked out for each of these proteins, I used whole genome methylated DNA affinity purification and subsequent hybridization to promoter microarrays. This enabled me to compare the requirement for each protein in DNA methylation at specific genomic regions. The absence of LSH in mouse embryonic fibroblasts (MEFs) resulted in the loss of DNA methylation at 20% of usually methylated promoters, and the misregulation of associated protein coding genes. This revealed a requirement for LSH in the establishment of DNA methylation at promoters normally methylated during pre-implantation as well as post-implantation development. Secondly, I identified hypomethylation at 26% of normally methylated promoters in G9a-/- compared to WT ES cells. Strikingly, this revealed that G9a is required for maintenance of DNA methylation at maternal as well as paternal imprinting control regions (ICRs). This is accompanied by expression defects of imprinted genes regulated by these ICRs. Finally, in collaboration with the Brockdorff lab at the University of Oxford I identified a role for SmcHD1 in establishing DNA methylation at promoters on the X chromosome normally methylated slowly during X chromosome inactivation. Interestingly, SmcHD1 was also required for DNA methylation at autosomal gene promoters, contrary to previous reports that it is mainly involved in X chromosome methylation. I conclude that different accessory proteins are required to facilitate correct DNA methylation and gene repression at distinct regions of the genome, as well as at different times during development. This function of accessory proteins may be in part dependent on the prior establishment of specific chromatin signatures and developmental signals, together comprising a precisely regulated system to establish and maintain appropriate DNA methylation throughout development.