The evolutionary significance of DNA methylation in human genome
MetadataShow full item record
In eukaryotic genomes ranging from plants to mammals, DNA methylation is a major epigenetic modification of DNA by adding a methyl group exclusively to cytosine residuals. In mammalian genomes such as humans, these cytosine bases are usually followed by guanine. Although it does not change the primary DNA sequence, this covalent modification plays critical roles in several regulatory processes and can impact gene activity in a heritable fashion. What is more important, DNA methylation is essential for mammalian embryonic development and aberrant DNA methylation is implicated in several human diseases, in particular in neuro-developmental syndromes (such as the fragile X and Rett syndromes) and cancer. These biological significances disclose the importance of understanding genomic patterns and function role of DNA methylation in human, as a initial step to get to know the epigenotype and its manner in connecting the phenotype and genotype. Two key papers back in 1975 independently suggested that methylation of CpG dinucleotides in vertebrates could be established de novo and inherited through somatic cell divisions by protein machineries of DNA methyltransferases that recognizes hemi-methylated CpG palindromes. They also indicated that the methyl group could be recognized by DNA-binding proteins and that DNA methylation directly silences gene expression. After almost four decades, several key points in these foundation papers are proved to be true. Take the mammalian genome for example, there are several findings indicating the epigenetic repression of gene expression by DNA methylation. These include X-chromosome inactivation, gene imprinting and suppressing the proliferation of transposable elements and repeat elements of viral or retroviral origin. In addition to these, many novel roles of DNA methylation have also been revealed. For example, DNA methylation can regulate alternative splicing by preventing CTCF, an evolutionarily conserved zinc-finger protein, binding to DNA. By using the technique of fluorescence resonance energy transfer (FRET) and fluorescence polarization, DNA methylation has also been shown to increase nucleosome compaction through DNA-histone contacts. What is more important, DNA methylation is essential for mammalian embryonic development and aberrant change of DNA methylation has been related to disease such as cancer. However, it is also notable there are several lines of evidence contradicting the relationship between DNA methylation and gene silencing. For example, comparison of DNA methylation levels in human genome on the active and inactive X chromosomes showed reduced methylation specifically over gene bodies on inactive X chromosomes. Not only in human, DNA methylation is found to be usually targeted to the transcription units of actively transcribed genes in invertebrate species. These results prove that the function of DNA methylation is challenging to be unravel. Besides, due to the development of sequencing technique, whole genome DNA methylation profiles have been detected in diverse species. Comparing genomic patterns of DNA methylation shows considerable variation among taxa, especially between vertebrates and invertebrates. However, even though extensive studies reveal the patterns and functions of DNA methylation in different species, in the mean time, they also highlight the limits to our understanding of this complex epigenetic system. During my Ph.D., in order to perform in-depth studies of DNA methylation in diverse animals as a way to understand the complexity of DNA methylation and its functions, I dedicated my efforts in investigating and analyzing the DNA methylation profiles in diverse species, ranging from insects to primates, including both model and non-model organisms. This dissertation, which constitutes an important part of my research, mainly focuses on the DNA methylation profile in primates including human and chimpanzee. In general, I will use three chapters to elucidate my work in generating and interpreting the whole genome DNA methylation data. Firstly, we generated nucleotide-resolution whole-genome methylation maps of the prefrontal cortex of multiple humans and chimpanzees, then comprehensive comparative studies for these DNA methylation maps have been performed, by integrating data on gene expression as well. This work demonstrates that differential DNA methylation might be an important molecular mechanism driving gene-expression divergence between human and chimpanzee brains and also potentially contribute to the human-specific traits, such as evolution of disease vulnerabilities. Secondly , we performed global analyses of CpG islands (CGIs) methylation across multiple methylomes of distinctive cellular origins in human. The results from this work show that the human CpG islands can be distinctly classified into different clusters solely based upon the DNA methylation profiles, and these CpG islands clusters reflect their distinctive nature at many biological levels, including both genomic characteristics and evolutionary features. Moreover, these CpG islands clusters are non-randomly associated with several important biological phenomena and processes such as diseases, aging, and gene imprinting. These new findings shed lights in deciphering the regulatory mechanisms of CpG islands in human health and diseases. At last, by utilizing the DNA methylome from human sperm and genetic map generated from the International HapMap Consortium project, we investigated the hypothesis suggesting a potential role of germ line DNA methylation in affecting meiotic recombination, which is essential for successful meiosis and various evolutionary processes. Even thought the results imply that DNA methylation is a important factor affecting regional recombination rate, the strength of correlation between these two is not as strong as the previous report. Besides, high-throughput analyses indicate that other epigenetic modifications, tri-methylation of histone 3 lysine 4 and histone 3 lysine 27 are also global features at the recombination hotspots, and may interact with methylation to affect the recombination pattern simultaneously. This work suggests epigenetic mechanisms as additional factors affecting recombination, which cannot be fully explained by the DNA sequence itself. In summary, I hope the results from these work can expand our knowledge regarding the common and variable patterns of DNA methylation in different taxa, and shed light about the function role and its major change during animal evolution.