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Int J Dev Biol. 2009;53(2-3):433-42. doi: 10.1387/ijdb.082643pm.

Mammalian hibernation: differential gene expression and novel application of epigenetic controls.

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  • 1Friedrich Miescher Institute for Biomedical Research, Maulbeerstrasse, Basel, Switzerland.


This review highlights current information about the regulatory mechanisms that govern gene expression during mammalian hibernation, in particular the potential role of epigenetic controls in coordinating the global suppression of transcription. Hibernation is characterized by long periods of deep torpor (when core body temperature drops to near ambient) that are interspersed with brief arousal periods back to euthermia. Entry into torpor requires coordinated controls which strongly suppress and reprioritize all metabolic functions, including global controls on both transcription and translation. At the same time, however, selected hibernation-specific genes are up-regulated under the control of specific transcription factors to support the torpid state; this includes genes that encode proteins involved in lipid fuel catabolism and in long term cytoprotection (e.g. antioxidants, chaperones). We evaluate the currently available information on global transcriptional suppression in hibernation and propose that epigenetic mechanisms such as DNA methylation, histone modification, SUMOylation and the actions of sirtuins play crucial roles in transcriptional suppression during torpor. Global controls providing translational suppression also occur during hibernation including reversible phosphorylation control of ribosomal initiation and elongation factors as well as polysome dissociation. We also present initial data that mRNA transcripts are regulated via inhibitory interactions with microRNA species during torpor and provide the first evidence of differential expression of miRNAs in hibernators. When taken together, these mechanisms provide hibernators with multiple layers of regulatory controls that achieve both global repression of gene expression and selected enhancement of genes/proteins that achieve the hibernation phenotype.

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