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Nature. 2004 Sep 9;431(7005):211-7. Epub 2004 Aug 15.

Induction of DNA methylation and gene silencing by short interfering RNAs in human cells.

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  • 1Department of Chemistry and Biotechnology, School of Engineering, The University of Tokyo, 7-3-1 Hongo, Bunkyo-ku, Tokyo 113-8656, Japan.


Double-stranded RNAs (dsRNAs) induce post-transcriptional gene silencing in several species of animal and plant. In plants, dsRNAs targeted to CpG islands within a promoter can also induce RNA-directed DNA methylation; however, it remains unclear whether gene silencing mediated by DNA methylation can be induced by dsRNAs in mammalian cells. Here, we demonstrate that short interfering RNAs (siRNAs; 21-25-nucleotide RNA molecules) induce DNA methylation and histone H3 methylation in human cells. Synthetic siRNAs targeted to CpG islands of an E-cadherin promoter induced significant DNA methylation and histone H3 lysine 9 methylation in both MCF-7 and normal mammary epithelial cells. As a result, these siRNAs repressed expression of the E-cadherin gene at the transcriptional level. In addition, disrupting the expression of either one of two DNA methyltransferases (DNMT1 or DNMT3B) by specific siRNAs abolished the siRNA-mediated methylation of DNA. Moreover, vector-based siRNAs targeted to the erbB2 (also known as HER2) promoter also induced DNA methylation in MCF-7 cells. Thus, siRNAs targeted to CpG islands within the promoter of a specific gene can induce transcriptional gene silencing by means of DNA-methyltransferase-dependent methylation of DNA in human cells, and might have potential as a new type of gene therapeutic agent.

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