Of blank slates and embryo development

The DNA contained within each of our cells is exactly the same, yet different types of cells – skin cells, heart cells, brain cells – perform very different functions.

The ultimate fate of these cells is encoded not just in the DNA, but in a specific pattern of chemical modifications that overlay the DNA structure. These modifications, or epigenetic markers as they are called, are stably carried in our genomes — except for at times when the cells change their fate, such as what occurs when the sperm meets the egg. Then they are erased completely. 

A fertilized egg prior to division. Two nuclei (one from the egg and one from the sperm) are visible in the center. Photo courtesy: Stan Beyler, PhD, UNC A.R.T. lab)

Researchers at the UNC School of Medicine have discovered a protein complex that appears to play a significant role in erasing these epigenetic instructions on sperm DNA, essentially creating a blank slate for the different cell types of a new embryo to develop. The protein complex – called elongator – could prove valuable for changing cell fate, such as converting cancer cells to normal cells, as it may be able to reactivate tumor suppressor genes by removing the epigenetic modifications that often prevent them from curbing the proliferation of cancer cells. 

The discovery may also have implications for stem cell research by providing a tool to quickly reprogram adult cells to possess the same attributes as embryonic stem cells, but without the ethical or safety issues of cells currently used for such studies. The results of the study appear on-line in the Jan. 6, 2010issue of the journal Nature

“The implications of such research have always been clear, and that is why for years researchers have tried to identify a factor responsible for erasing these epigenetic markers,” said senior author Yi Zhang, Ph.D., Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator and Kenan Distinguished Professor of Biochemistry and Biophysics at UNC. He is also a member of the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center. 

Epigenetic markers are essentially chemical tags attached to the genomes of each cell, determining which genes will be turned on or off and, ultimately, what role that cell type will have in the body. One way this comes about is through DNA methylation, a process by which methyl groups are stamped onto cytosines — one of the four bases of DNA — to produce a characteristic pattern for a particular cell. 

During fertilization, the paternal genome derived from the sperm is actively demethylated, removing these methyl tags quickly before cell division, while the maternal genome is demethylated passively. The new methylation pattern will be reestablished at a later stage. 

“Several previous studies have identified factors that can perform gene-specific DNA demethylation, but ours is the first to link a protein complex to global DNA demethylation that correlates to germ cell to somatic cell transition,” Zhang said. 

For further details, click here.

Les Lang

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