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PLoS One. 2011;6(8):e23127. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0023127. Epub 2011 Aug 4.

Long term transcriptional reactivation of epigenetically silenced genes in colorectal cancer cells requires DNA hypomethylation and histone acetylation.

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  • 1Discipline of Medical Genetics, School of Biomedical Sciences, Faculty of Health, University of Newcastle, Callaghan, New South Wales, Australia.


Epigenetic regulation of genes involves the coordination of DNA methylation and histone modifications to maintain transcriptional status. These two features are frequently disrupted in malignancy such that critical genes succumb to inactivation. 5-aza-2'-deoxycytidine (5-aza-dC) is an agent which inhibits DNA methyltransferase, and holds great potential as a treatment for cancer, yet the extent of its effectiveness varies greatly between tumour types. Previous evidence suggests expression status after 5-aza-dC exposure cannot be explained by the DNA methylation status alone.


We sought to identify chromatin changes involved with short and long term gene reactivation following 5-aza-dC exposure. Two colorectal cancer cell lines, HCT116 and SW480, were treated with 5-aza-dC and then grown in drug-free media to allow DNA re-methylation. DNA methylation and chromatin modifications were assessed with bisulfite sequencing and Chromatin Immuno-Precipitation analysis.


Increased H3 acetylation, H3K4 tri-methylation and loss of H3K27 tri-methylation were associated with reactivation. Hypermethylated genes that did not show increased acetylation were transiently expressed with 5-aza-dC treatment before reverting to an inactive state. Three reactivated genes, CDO1, HSPC105 and MAGEA3, were still expressed 10 days post 5-aza-dC treatment and displayed localised hypomethylation at the transcriptional start site, and also an increased enrichment of histone H3 acetylation.


These observations suggest that hypomethylation alone is insufficient to reactivate silenced genes and that increased Histone H3 acetylation in unison with localised hypomethylation allows long term reversion of these epigenetically silenced genes. This study suggests that combined DNA methyltransferase and histone deacetylase inhibitors may aid long term reactivation of silenced genes.

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