Gene Variation

Molecular control of gene expression: the dynamic epigenome

Almost all the cells in our body are genetically identical, yet our body generates many different cell types, organized into different tissues and organs, and expresses different proteins. Within each type of mammalian cell, about 2 meters of genomic DNA is divided into nuclear chromosomes. Yet the nucleus of a human cell, which contains the chromosomes, is only about 2 μm in diameter. To achieve this 1,000,000-fold compaction, DNA is wrapped around a group of 8 proteins called histones. This combination of DNA and histone proteins forms a special structure called a “nucleosome,” the basic unit of chromatin, which represents a structural solution for maintaining and accessing the tightly compacted genome. These factors alter the likelihood that a gene will be expressed or silenced. Cellular functions such as gene expression, DNA replication, and the generation of specific cell types are therefore influenced by distinct patterns of chromatin structure, involving covalent modification of both histones (Kadonaga, 1998) and DNA (Razin, 1998).

Importantly, epigenetic variation also emerges across the lifespan. For example, although identical twins share a common genotype and are genetically identical and epigenetically similar when they are young, as they age they become more dissimilar in their epigenetic patterns and often display behavioral, personality, or even physical differences, and have different risk levels for serious illness. Thus, understanding the structure of the nucleosome is key to understanding the precise and stable control of gene expression and regulation, providing a molecular interface between genes and environmentally induced changes in cellular activity.

The primary epigenetic mark: DNA modification

DNA methylation is the best-understood epigenetic modification influencing gene expression. DNA is composed of four types of naturally occurring nitrogenous bases: adenine (A), thymine (T), guanine (G), and cytosine (C). In mammalian genomes, DNA methylation occurs primarily at cytosine residues in the context of cytosines that are followed by guanines (CpG dinucleotides), to form 5-methylcytosine in a cell-specific pattern (Goll & Bestor, 2005; Law & Jacobsen, 2010; Suzuki & Bird, 2008). The enzymes that perform DNA methylation are called DNA methyltransferases (DNMTs), which catalyze the transfer of a methyl group to the cytosine (Adams, McKay, Craig, & Burdon, 1979). These enzymes are all expressed in the central nervous system and are dynamically regulated during development (Feng, Chang, Li, & Fan, 2005; Goto et al., 1994). The effect of DNA methylation on gene function varies depending on the period of development during which the methylation occurs and location of the methylated cytosine. Methylation of DNA in gene regulatory regions (promoter and enhancer regions) usually results in gene silencing and reduced gene expression (Ooi, O’Donnell, & Bestor, 2009; Suzuki & Bird, 2008; Sutter and Doerfler, 1980; Vardimon et al., 1982). This is a powerful regulatory mechanism that ensures that genes are expressed only when needed. Thus DNA methylation may broadly impact human brain development, and age-related misregulation of DNA methylation is associated with the molecular pathogenesis of neurodevelopmental disorders.

Histone modification and the histone code

The modification of histone proteins comprises an important epigenetic mark related to gene expression. One of the most thoroughly studied modifications is histone acetylation, which is associated with gene activation and increased gene expression (Wade, Pruss, & Wolffe, 1997). Acetylation on histone tails is mediated by the opposing enzymatic activities of histone acetyltransferases (HATs) and histone deacetylases (HDACs) (Kuo & Allis, 1998). For example, acetylation of histone in gene regulatory regions by HAT enzymes is generally associated with DNA demethylation, gene activation, and increased gene expression (Hong, Schroth, Matthews, Yau, & Bradbury, 1993; Sealy & Chalkley, 1978). On the other hand, removal of the acetyl group (deacetylation) by HDAC enzymes is generally associated with DNA methylation, gene silencing, and decreased gene expression (Davie & Chadee, 1998). The relationship between patterns of histone modifications and gene activity provides evidence for the existence of a “histone code” for determining cell-specific gene expression programs (Jenuwein & Allis, 2001). Interestingly, recent research using animal models has demonstrated that histone modifications and DNA methylation of certain genes mediates the long-term behavioral effects of the level of care experienced during infancy.