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Front Genet. 2012 Oct 8;3:199. doi: 10.3389/fgene.2012.00199. eCollection 2012.

A repetitive elements perspective in Polycomb epigenetics.

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Division of Regenerative Medicine, Stem Cells, and Gene Therapy, Dulbecco Telethon Institute and San Raffaele Scientific Institute Milano, Italy ; Università Vita-Salute San Raffaele Milano, Italy.


Repetitive elements comprise over two-thirds of the human genome. For a long time, these elements have received little attention since they were considered non-functional. On the contrary, recent evidence indicates that they play central roles in genome integrity, gene expression, and disease. Indeed, repeats display meiotic instability associated with disease and are located within common fragile sites, which are hotspots of chromosome re-arrangements in tumors. Moreover, a variety of diseases have been associated with aberrant transcription of repetitive elements. Overall this indicates that appropriate regulation of repetitive elements' activity is fundamental. Polycomb group (PcG) proteins are epigenetic regulators that are essential for the normal development of multicellular organisms. Mammalian PcG proteins are involved in fundamental processes, such as cellular memory, cell proliferation, genomic imprinting, X-inactivation, and cancer development. PcG proteins can convey their activity through long-distance interactions also on different chromosomes. This indicates that the 3D organization of PcG proteins contributes significantly to their function. However, it is still unclear how these complex mechanisms are orchestrated and which role PcG proteins play in the multi-level organization of gene regulation. Intriguingly, the greatest proportion of Polycomb-mediated chromatin modifications is located in genomic repeats and it has been suggested that they could provide a binding platform for Polycomb proteins. Here, these lines of evidence are woven together to discuss how repetitive elements could contribute to chromatin organization in the 3D nuclear space.


FSHD muscular dystrophy; Polycomb; non-protein-coding RNA; nuclear structure; repeats

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