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Mol Cell Biol. 1995 May;15(5):2547-57.

Carcinogenic nickel silences gene expression by chromatin condensation and DNA methylation: a new model for epigenetic carcinogens.

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  • 1Nelson Institute of Environmental Medicine, New York University Medical Center, New York 10016, USA.


A transgenic gpt+ Chinese hamster cell line (G12) was found to be susceptible to carcinogenic nickel-induced inactivation of gpt expression without mutagenesis or deletion of the transgene. Many nickel-induced 6-thioguanine-resistant variants spontaneously reverted to actively express gpt, as indicated by both reversion assays and direct enzyme measurements. Since reversion was enhanced in many of the nickel-induced variant cell lines following 24-h treatment with the demethylating agent 5-azacytidine, the involvement of DNA methylation in silencing gpt expression was suspected. This was confirmed by demonstrations of increased DNA methylation, as well as by evidence indicating condensed chromatin and heterochromatinization of the gpt integration site in 6-thioguanine-resistant cells. Upon reversion to active gpt expression, DNA methylation and condensation are lost. We propose that DNA condensation and methylation result in heterochromatinization of the gpt sequence with subsequent inheritance of the now silenced gene. This mechanism is supported by direct evidence showing that acute nickel treatment of cultured cells, and of isolated nuclei in vitro, can indeed facilitate gpt sequence-specific chromatin condensation. Epigenetic mechanisms have been implicated in the actions of some nonmutagenic carcinogens, and DNA methylation changes are now known to be important in carcinogenesis. This paper further supports the emerging theory that nickel is a human carcinogen that can alter gene expression by enhanced DNA methylation and compaction, rather than by mutagenic mechanisms.

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