Posts Tagged ‘DNA methylation’

remember a day before today
Image by DerrickT via Flickr

Most cells in your adult body are “terminally differentiated” – meaning that they have developed from stem cells into the final liver, or heart, or muscle or endothelial cell that they were meant to be.  From that point onward, cells are able to “remember” to stay in this final state – in part – via stable patterns of DNA methylation that reinforce the regulation of “the end state” of gene expression for that cell.  As evidence for this role of DNA methylation, it has been observed that levels of DNA methyl transferase (DNMT) decline when cells are fully differentiated and thus, cannot modify or disrupt their patterns of methylation.

NOT the case in the brain! Even though neurons in the adult brain are fully differentiated, levels of methyl transferases – DO NOT decline.  Why not? Afterall, we wouldn’t want our neurons to turn into liver cells, or big toe cells, would we?

One hypothesis, suggested by David Sweatt and colleagues is that neurons have more important things to “remember”.   They suggest in their fee and open research article, “Evidence That DNA (Cytosine-5) Methyltransferase Regulates Synaptic Plasticity in the Hippocampus” [doi: 10.1074/jbc.M511767200] that:

DNA methylation could have lasting effects on neuronal gene expression and overall functional state. We hypothesize that direct modification of DNA, in the form of DNA (cytosine-5) methylation, is another epigenetic mechanism for long term information storage in the nervous system.

By measuring methylated vs. unmethylated DNA in the promoter of the reelin and BDNF genes and relating this to electrophysiological measures of synaptic plasticity, the research team finds correlations between methylation status and synaptic plasticity.  More specifically, they find that zebularine (an inhibitor of DNMT) CAN block long-term potentiation (LTP), but NOT block baseline synaptic transmission nor the ability of synapses to fire in a theta-burst pattern (needed to induce LTP).

This suggests that the epigenetic machinery used for DNA methylation may have a role in the formation of cellular memory – but not in the same sense as in other cells in the body – where cells remember to remain in a terminally differentiated state.

In the brain, this epigenetic machinery may help cells remember stuff that’s more germane to brain function … you know … our memories and stuff.

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Last year I dug a bit into the area of epigenetics (indexed here) and learned that the methylation (CH3) and acetylation (OCCH3) of genomic DNA & histones, respectively, can have dramatic effects on the structure of DNA and its accessibility to transcription factors – and hence – gene expression.  Many of the papers I covered suggested that the environment can influence the degree to which these so-called “epigenetic marks” are covalently bonded onto the genome during early development.  Thus, the thinking goes, the early environment can modulate gene expression in ways that are long-lasting – even transgenerational.  The idea is a powerful one to be sure.  And a scary one as well, as parents who read this literature, may fret that their children (and grandchildren) can be epigenetically scarred by early nutritional, physical and/or psycho-social stress.  I must admit that, as a parent of young children myself, I began to wonder if I might be negatively influencing the epigenome of my children.

I’m wondering how much physical and/or social stress is enough to cause changes in the epigenome?  Does the concern about epigenetics only apply to exposure to severe stress?  or run of the mill forms of stress?  How much do we know about this?

This year, I hope to explore this line of inquiry further.  For starters, I came across a fantastic paper by Fraga et al., entitled, “Epigenetic differences arise during the lifetime of monozygotic twins” [doi:10.1073/pnas.0500398102].   The group carries out a remarkably straightforward and time honored approach – a twin study – to ask how much identical twins differ at the epigenetic level.  Since identical twins have the same genome sequence, any differences in their physiology, behavior etc. are, strictly speaking, due to the way in which the environment (from the uterus to adulthood) shapes their development.  Hence, the team of Fraga et al., can compare the amount and location of methyl (CH3) and acetyl (OCCH3) groups to see whether the environment has differentially shaped the epigenome.

An analysis of some 40 identical twin pairs from ages 3-74 years old showed that – YES – the environment, over time, does seem to shape the epigenome (in this case of lymphocytes).  The most compelling evidence for me was seen in Figure 4 where the team used a method known as Restriction Landmark Genomic Scanning (RLGS) to compare patterns of methylation in a genome-wide manner.  Using this analysis, the team found that older twin pairs had about 2.5 times as many differences as did the epigenomes of the youngest twin pairs.  These methylation differences also correlated with gene expression differences (older pairs also had more gene expression differences) and they found that the individual who showed the lowest levels of methylation also had the highest levels of gene expression.  Furthermore, the team finds that twin pairs who lived apart and had more differences in life history were more likely to have epigenetic differences.  Finally, measures of histone acetylation seemed consistent with the gradient of epigenetic change over time and life-history distance.

Thus it seems that, as everyday life progresses, the epigenome changes too.  So, perhaps, one does not need extreme forms of stress to leave long-lasting epigenetic marks on the genome?  Is this true during early life (where the team did not see many differences between pairs)?  and in the brain (the team focused mainly on lymphocytes)?  Are the differences between twins due to the creation of new environmentally-mediated marks or the faulty passage of existing marks from dividing cell-to-cell over time?  Will be fun to seek out information on this.

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We are all familiar with the notion that genes are NOT destiny and that the development of an individual’s mind and body occur in a manner that is sensitive to the environment (e.g. children who eat lots of healthy food grow bigger and stronger than those who have little or no access to food).  In the case of the brain, one of the ways in which the environment gets factored into development – is via so-called “sensitive periods” where certain parts of the brain transiently rely on sensory experience in order to develop.  Children born with cataracts, for example, will have much better vision if the cataracts are removed in the first few weeks of life rather than later on.  This is because the human visual system has a “sensitive period” early in development where it is extra-sensitive to visual input and, after which, the function and connectivity of various parts of the system is – somewhat permanently – established for the rest of the person’s life.  Hence, if there is little visual input (cataracts) during the sensitive period, then the visual system is somewhat permanently unable to process visual information – even if the cataracts are subsequently removed.  (To learn more about this topic, visit Pawan Sinha’s lab at M.I.T and his Project Prakash intervention study on childhood blindness.)

What the heck is an “in”sensitive period then?   Well, whereas visual input is clearly a “good thing” for the sensitive period of visual development, perhaps some inputs are “bad” and it may be useful to shield or protect the brain from exposure.  Maybe some environmental inputs are “bad” and one would not want the developing brain to be exposed to them and say, “OK, this (bad stuff) is normal“.  As a parent, I am constantly telling my children that the traffic-filled street is a “bad place” and, like all parents, I would not want my children to think that it was OK to wander into the street.  Clearly, I want my child to recognize the car-filled street as a “bad thing”.

In the developing brain, it turns out that there are some “bad things” that one would NOT like (the brain) to get accustomed to.  Long-term exposure to glucocorticoids is one example – well-known to cause a type of neuronal remodelling in the hippocampus, that is associated with poor cognitive performance (visit Bruce McEwen’s lab at Rockefeller University to learn more about this).  Perhaps an “in”sensitive period – where the brain is insensitive to glucocorticoids – is one way to teach the brain that glucocorticoids are “bad” and DO NOT get too familiar with them (such a period does actually occur during early post-natal mammalian development).  Of course, we do need our brains to mount an acute stress response, if and when, we are being threatened, but it is also very important that the brain learn to TURN-OFF the acute stress response when the threat has passed – an extensive literature on the deleterious effects of chronic exposure to stress bears this out.  Hence, the brain needs to learn to recognize the flow of glucocorticoids as something that needs to be shut down.

OK, so our developing brain needs to learn what/who is “good vs. bad”.  Perhaps sensitive and insensitive periods help to reinforce this learning – and also – to cement learning into the system in a sort of permanent way (I’m really not sure if this is the consensus view, but I’ll try and podcast interview some of the experts here asap).  In any case, in the case of the visual system, it is clear that the lack of visual input during the sensitive period has long lasting consequences.  In the case of the stress response, it is also clear that if there is untoward stress early in development, one can be (somewhat) destined to endure a lifetime of emotional difficulty.  Previous posts here, here, here cover research on behavioral/genomic correlates of early life stress.

Genes meet environment in the epigenome during sensitive and insensitive periods?

As stated at the outset – genes are not destiny.  The DNA cannot encode a system that knows who/what is good vs. bad, but rather can only encode a system of molecular parts that can assemble to learn these contingencies on the fly.  During sensitive periods in the visual system, cells in the visual system are more active and fire more profusely during the sensitive period. This extra firing leads to changes in gene expression in ways that (somewhat) permanently set the connectivity, strength and sensitivity of visual synapses.  The expression of neuroligins, neurexins, integrins and all manner of extracellular proteins that stabilize synaptic connections are well-known tagets of activity-induced gene expression.  Hence the environment “interacts” with the genome via neuronal firing which induces gene expression which – in turn – feeds back and modulates neuronal firing.  Environment –> neuronal firing –> gene expression –> modified neuronal firing.  OK.

Similarly, in the stress response system, the environment induces changes in the firing of cells in the hypothalamus which leads (through a series of intermediates) to the release of glucocorticoids.  Genes induced during the firing of hypothalamic cells and by the release of glucocorticoid can modify the organism’s subsequent response to stressful events.  Environment –> neuronal firing –> gene expression –> modified neuronal firing.  OK.

Digging deeper into the mechanism by which neuronal firing induces gene expression, we find an interesting twist.   Certainly there is a well-studied mechanism wherein neuronal firing causes Ca++ release which activates gene expression of neuroligins, neurexins, integrins and all manner of extracellular proteins that stabilize synaptic connections – for many decades.  There is another mechanism that can permanently mark certain genes and alter their levels of expression – in a long-lasting manner.  These are so-called epigenetic mechanisms such as DNA methylation and acetylation.  As covered here and here, for instance, Michael Meaney’s lab has shown that DNA CpG methylation of various genes can vary in response to early-life stress and/or maternal care. In some cases, females who were poorly cared for, may, in turn, be rather lousy mothers themselves as a consequence of these epigenetic markings.

A new research article, “Dynamic DNA methylation programs persistent adverse effects of early-life stress” by Chris Murgatroyd and colleagues [doi:10.1038/nn.2436] explores these mechanisms in great detail.  The team explored the expression of the arginine vasopressin (AVP) peptide – a gene which is important for healthy social interaction and social-stress responsivity.  Among many other interesting results, the team reports that early life stress (using a mouse model) leads to lower levels of methylation in the 3rd CpG island which is located downstream in a distal gene-expression-enhancer region.  In short, more early-life stress was correlated with less methylation, more AVP expression which is known to potentiate the release of glucocorticoids (a bad thing).   The team reports that the methyl binding MeCP2 protein, encoded by the gene that underlies Rett syndrome, acts as a repressor of AVP expression – which would normally be a good thing since it would keep AVP levels (and hence glucocorticoid levels) down.  But unfortunately, early-life stress removes the very methyl groups to which MeCP2 binds and also the team reports that parvocelluar neuronal depolarization leads to phosphorylation (on serine residue #438) of MeCP2 – a form of MeCP2 that is less accessible to its targets.  So, in  a manner similar to other examples, early life stress can have long-lasting effects on gene expression via an epigenetic mechanism – and disables an otherwise protective mechanism that would shield the organism from the effects of stress.  Much like in the case of Rett syndrome (as covered here) it seems that when MeCP2 is bound – then it silences gene expression – which would seem to be a good thing when it comes to the case of AVP.

So who puts these epigenetic marks on chromosomes and why?

I’ll try and explore this further in the weeks ahead.  One intriguing idea about why methylation has been co-opted among mammals, has to do with the idea of parent-offspring conflict.  According to David Haig, one of the experts on this topic, males have various incentives to cause their offspring to be large and fast growing, while females have incentive to combat the genomic tricks that males use, and to keep their offspring smaller and more manageable in size.  The literature clearly show that genes that are marked or methylated by fathers (paternally imprinted genes) tend to be growth promoting genes and that maternally imprinted genes tend to be growth inhibitors.  One might imagine that maternally methylated genes might have an impact on maternal care as well.

Lastly, the growth promoting/inhibiting effects of paternal/maternal genes and gene markings is now starting to be discussed somewhat in the context of autism/schizophrenia which have have been associated with synaptic under-/over-growth, respectively.

Building a brain is already tough enough – but to have to do it amidst an eons-old battle between maternal and paternal genomes.  Sheesh!  More on this to come.

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Gravestone of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor,Wallington
Image by sludgegulper via Flickr

Few events are as hard to understand as the loss of a loved one to suicide – a fatal confluence of factors that are oft scrutinized – but whose analysis can provide little comfort to family and friends.  To me, one frightening and vexing aspect of what is known about the biological roots of depression, anxiety, impulsivity and other mental traits and states associated with suicide, is the way in which early life (even prenatal) experience can influence events in later life.  As covered in this blog here and here, there appear to be very early interactions between emotional experience in early life and the methylation of specific points in the genome.  Such methylation – often referred to as epigenetic marks – can regulate the expression of genes that are important for synaptic plasticity and cognitive development.

The recent paper, “Alternative Splicing, Methylation State, and Expression Profile of Tropomyosin-Related Kinase B in the Frontal Cortex of Suicide Completers” is a recent example of a link between epigenetic marks and suicide.  The team of Ernst et al., examined gene expression profiles from the frontal cortex and cerebellum of 28 males lost to suicide and 11 control, ethnically-matched control participants.  Using a subject-by-subject comparison method described as “extreme value analysis” the team identified 2 Affymetrix probes: 221794_at and 221796_at – that are specific to NTRK2 (TRKB) gene – that showed significantly lower expression in several areas of the frontal cortex.  The team also found that these probes were specific to exon 16 – which is expressed only in the TRKB.T1 isoform that is expressed only in astrocytes.

Further analysis showed that there were no genetic differences in the promoter region of this gene that would explain the expression differences, but, however, that there were 2 methylation sites (epigenetic differences) whose methylation status correlated with expression levels (P=0.01 and 0.004).  As a control, the DNA-methylation at these sites was not correlated with TRKB.T1 expression when DNA and RNA was taken from the cerebellum (a control since the cerebellum is not thought to be directly involved in the regulation of mood).

In the case of TRKB.T1 expression, the team reports that more methylation at these 2 sites in the promoter region is associated with less TRKB.T1 expression in the frontal cortex.  Where and when are these marks laid down?  Are they reversible?  How can we know or suspect what is happening to our epigenome (you can’t measure this by spitting into a cup as with current genome sequencing methods)? To me, the team has identified an important clue from which such follow-up questions can be addressed.  Now that they have a biomarker, they can help us begin to better understand our complex and often difficult emotional lives within a broader biological context.

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Image via Wikipedia

The cognitive and emotional impairments in the autism spectrum disorders can be difficult for parents and siblings to understand and cope with.  Here are some graphics and videos that might assist in understanding how genetic mutations and epigenetic modifications can lead to various forms of social withdrawl commonly observed in the autism spectrum disorders in children.

In this post, the focus is just on the MecP2 gene – where mutations are known to give rise to Rett Syndrome – one of the autism spectrum disorders.  I’ll try and lay out some of the key steps in the typical bare-bones-link-infested-blogger-fashion – starting with mutations in the MecP2 gene.  Disclaimer: there are several fuzzy areas and leaps of faith in the points and mouse model evidence below, and there are many other genes associated with various aspects of autism spectrum disorders that may or may not work in this fashion.  Nevertheless, still it seems one can begin to pull a mechanistic thread from gene to social behavior Stay tuned for more on this topic.

1. The MecP2 gene encodes a protein that binds to 5-Methylcytosine – very simply – a regular cytosine reside with an extra methyl group added at position 5.  Look at the extra -CH3 group on the cytosine residue in the picture at right.  See?  That’s a 5-methylcyctosine residue – and it pairs in the DNA double helix with guanosine (G) in the same fashion as does the regular cyctosine reside (C). 5methC OK, now, mutations in the gene that encode the  MecP2 gene – such as those found at Arginine residue 133 and Serine residue 134 impair the ability of the protein to bind to these 5-Methylcyctosine residues.  bindingMecP2The figure at left illustrates this, and shows how the MecP2 protein lines up with the bulky yellow 5-Methylcytosine residues in the blue DNA double helix during binding.

2. When the MecP2 protein is bound to the methylated DNA, it serves as a binding site for another type of protein – an HDAC or histone deacetylase. The binding of MecP2 and HDAC (and other proteins (see p172 section 5.3 of this online bookChromatin Structure and Gene Expression“)).  The binding of the eponymously named HDAC’s leads to the “de-acetylation” of proteins known as histones.  The movie below illustrates how histone “de-acetylation” leads to the condensation of DNA structure and repression or shutting down of gene expression (when the DNA is tightly coiled, it is inaccessible to transcription factors).  Hence: DNA methylation leads (via MecP2, HDAC binding) to a repression on gene expression.

3. When mutated forms of MecP2 cannot bind, the net result is MORE acetylation and MORE gene expression. As covered previously here, this may not be a good thing during brain development since more gene expression can induce the formation of more synapses and – possibly – lead to neural networks that fail to grow and mature in the “normal” fashion. The figure at right toomanysynapsessuggests that neural networks with too many synapses may not be appropriately connected and may be locked-in to sub-optimal architectures.  Evidence for excessive synaptogenesis is abundant within the autism spectrum disorders.  Neuroligins – a class of genes that have been implicated in autism are known to function in cell & synaptic adhesion (open access review here), and can alter the balance of excitation/inhibition when mutated – which seems consistent with this heuristic model of neural networks that can be too adhesive or sticky.

4. Cognitive and social impairment can result from poor-functioning neural networks containing, but not limited to the amygdala. The normal development of neural networks containing the forntal cortex and amygdala are important for proper social and emotional function.  The last piece of the puzzle then would be to find evidence for developmental abnormalities in these networks and to show that such abnormalities mediate social and/or emotional function.  Such evidence is abundant.

Regarding the effects of MecP2 however, we can consider the work of Adachi et al., who were able to delete the MecP2 gene – just in the amygdala – of (albeit, an adult) mouse.  Doing so, led to the disruption of various emotional behaviors – BUT NOT – of various social interaction deficits that are observed when MecP2 is deleted in the entire forebrain.  This was the case also when the team infused HDAC inhibitors into the amygdala suggesting that loss of transcriptional repression in the adult amygdala may underlie the emotional impariments seen in some autism spectrum disorders.  Hence, such emotional impairments (anxiety etc.) might be treatable in adults (more on this result later and its implications for gene-therapy).

Whew!  Admittedly, the more you know – the more you don’t know.  True here, but still amazing to see the literature starting to interlink across human-genetic, mouse-genetic, human-functional-imaging levels of analysis. Hoping this rambling was helpful.

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