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PLoS One. 2013 Sep 12;8(9):e72670. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0072670. eCollection 2013.

A minimal set of tissue-specific hypomethylated CpGs constitute epigenetic signatures of developmental programming.

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Laboratory of Neurobiology, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, United States of America.



Cell specific states of the chromatin are programmed during mammalian development. Dynamic DNA methylation across the developing embryo guides a program of repression, switching off genes in most cell types. Thus, the majority of the tissue specific differentially methylated sites (TS-DMS) must be un-methylated CpGs.


Comparison of expanded Methyl Sensitive Cut Counting data (eMSCC) among four tissues (liver, testes, brain and kidney) from three C57BL/6J mice, identified 138,052 differentially methylated sites of which 23,270 contain CpGs un-methylated in only one tissue (TS-DMS). Most of these CpGs were located in intergenic regions, outside of promoters, CpG islands or their shores, and up to 20% of them overlapped reported active enhancers. Indeed, tissue-specific enhancers were up to 30 fold enriched in TS-DMS. Testis showed the highest number of TS-DMS, but paradoxically their associated genes do not appear to be specific to the germ cell functions, but rather are involved in organism development. In the other tissues the differentially methylated genes are associated with tissue-specific physiological or anatomical functions. The identified sets of TS-DMS quantify epigenetic distances between tissues, generated during development. We applied this concept to measure the extent of reprogramming in the liver of mice exposed to in utero or early postnatal nutritional stress. Different protocols of food restriction reprogrammed the liver methylome in different but reproducible ways.


Thus, each identified set of differentially methylated sites constituted an epigenetic signature that traced the developmental programing or the early nutritional reprogramming of each exposed mouse. We propose that our approach has the potential to outline a number of disease-associated epigenetic states. The composition of differentially methylated CpGs may vary with each situation, behaving as a composite variable, which can be used as a pre-symptomatic marker for disease.

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