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Epigenetics Chromatin. 2013 Sep 2;6(1):28. doi: 10.1186/1756-8935-6-28.

Epigenetic coordination of signaling pathways during the epithelial-mesenchymal transition.

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  • 1Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics, University of Virginia, 1340 Jefferson Park Ave, P,O, Box 800733, Charlottesville, VA 22908, USA. mwm3y@virginia.edu.



The epithelial-mesenchymal transition (EMT) is a de-differentiation process required for wound healing and development. In tumors of epithelial origin aberrant induction of EMT contributes to cancer progression and metastasis. Studies have begun to implicate epigenetic reprogramming in EMT; however, the relationship between reprogramming and the coordination of cellular processes is largely unexplored. We have previously developed a system to study EMT in a canonical non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) model. In this system we have shown that the induction of EMT results in constitutive NF-κB activity. We hypothesized a role for chromatin remodeling in the sustained deregulation of cellular signaling pathways.


We mapped sixteen histone modifications and two variants for epithelial and mesenchymal states. Combinatorial patterns of epigenetic changes were quantified at gene and enhancer loci. We found a distinct chromatin signature among genes in well-established EMT pathways. Strikingly, these genes are only a small minority of those that are differentially expressed. At putative enhancers of genes with the 'EMT-signature' we observed highly coordinated epigenetic activation or repression. Furthermore, enhancers that are activated are bound by a set of transcription factors that is distinct from those that bind repressed enhancers. Upregulated genes with the 'EMT-signature' are upstream regulators of NF-κB, but are also bound by NF-κB at their promoters and enhancers. These results suggest a chromatin-mediated positive feedback as a likely mechanism for sustained NF-κB activation.


There is highly specific epigenetic regulation at genes and enhancers across several pathways critical to EMT. The sites of these changes in chromatin state implicate several inducible transcription factors with critical roles in EMT (NF-κB, AP-1 and MYC) as targets of this reprogramming. Furthermore, we find evidence that suggests that these transcription factors are in chromatin-mediated transcriptional feedback loops that regulate critical EMT genes. In sum, we establish an important link between chromatin remodeling and shifts in cellular reprogramming.

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