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Genes Dev. 1998 Sep 15;12(18):2852-62.

Loss of transcriptional activity of a transgene is accompanied by DNA methylation and histone deacetylation and is prevented by insulators.

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  • 1Laboratory of Molecular Biology, National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Maryland 20892, USA.


The constitutive DNase I hypersensitive site at the 5' end of the chicken beta-globin locus marks the boundary of the active chromatin domain in erythroid cells. The DNA sequence containing this site has the properties of an insulator, as shown by its ability in stable transformation experiments to block enhancer-promoter interaction when it lies between the two, but not when it lies outside, and to protect against position effects in Drosophila. We now show that the chicken insulator can protect a stably integrated gene, which is otherwise subject to great variability of expression, from chromatin-mediated repression in cell culture. When the integrated reporter gene is surrounded by insulator elements, stably transformed cell lines display consistent enhancer-dependent expression levels, in accord with the strength of the enhancer. In the absence of insulators, long-term nonselective propagation of cells carrying the integrated reporter gene results in gradual extinction of the reporter's expression, with expression patterns from tandemly repeated inserted genes suggesting that the extinction of adjacent genes is coupled. We show that the uninsulated reporter genes, in addition to becoming transcriptionally inactive, lose several epigenetic hallmarks of active chromatin, including nuclease accessibility, DNA hypomethylation, and histone hyperacetylation during time in culture. Treatment with inhibitors of histone deacetylase or DNA methylation reverses the extinction of the uninsulated genes. Extinction is completely prevented by flanking the reporter construct with insulators. Furthermore, in contrast to the uninsulated reporter genes, chromatin over the insulated genes retains nuclease accessibility and histone hyperacetylation. However, there is no clear correlation between the presence of the insulators and the level of DNA methylation. This leads us to propose a model for the insulator's ability to protect against extinction in the transformed cell lines and to function as a chromatin boundary for the chicken beta-globin locus in normal erythroid cells.

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