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PLoS Genet. 2011 Oct;7(10):e1002331. doi: 10.1371/journal.pgen.1002331. Epub 2011 Oct 20.

Genetic rearrangements can modify chromatin features at epialleles.

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Gregor Mendel Institute of Molecular Plant Biology (GMI), Austrian Academy of Sciences, Vienna, Austria.


Analogous to genetically distinct alleles, epialleles represent heritable states of different gene expression from sequence-identical genes. Alleles and epialleles both contribute to phenotypic heterogeneity. While alleles originate from mutation and recombination, the source of epialleles is less well understood. We analyze active and inactive epialleles that were found at a transgenic insert with a selectable marker gene in Arabidopsis. Both converse expression states are stably transmitted to progeny. The silent epiallele was previously shown to change its state upon loss-of-function of trans-acting regulators and drug treatments. We analyzed the composition of the epialleles, their chromatin features, their nuclear localization, transcripts, and homologous small RNA. After mutagenesis by T-DNA transformation of plants carrying the silent epiallele, we found new active alleles. These switches were associated with different, larger or smaller, and non-overlapping deletions or rearrangements in the 3' regions of the epiallele. These cis-mutations caused different degrees of gene expression stability depending on the nature of the sequence alteration, the consequences for transcription and transcripts, and the resulting chromatin organization upstream. This illustrates a tight dependence of epigenetic regulation on local structures and indicates that sequence alterations can cause epigenetic changes at some distance in regions not directly affected by the mutation. Similar effects may also be involved in gene expression and chromatin changes in the vicinity of transposon insertions or excisions, recombination events, or DNA repair processes and could contribute to the origin of new epialleles.

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