On the presence and role of human gene-body DNA methylation
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1 School of Biology, Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta GA, 30332 USA
2 Buck Institute for Research on Aging, Novato CA, 94945 USA
3 PanAmerican Bioinformatics Institute, Santa Marta, Magdalena, Colombia
Received: March 29, 2012, Accepted: April 28, 2012, Published: May 9, 2012
Keywords: genome-wide methylation, epigenetic mark, intragenic transcription, methylating enzyme complexes
I. King Jordan,
DNA methylation of promoter sequences is a repressive epigenetic mark that down-regulates gene expression. However, DNA methylation is more prevalent within gene-bodies than seen for promoters, and gene-body methylation has been observed to be positively correlated with gene expression levels. This paradox remains unexplained, and accordingly the role of DNA methylation in gene-bodies is poorly understood. We addressed the presence and role of human gene-body DNA methylation using a meta-analysis of human genome-wide methylation, expression and chromatin data sets. Methylation is associated with transcribed regions as genic sequences have higher levels of methylation than intergenic or promoter sequences. We also find that the relationship between gene-body DNA methylation and expression levels is non-monotonic and bell-shaped. Mid-level expressed genes have the highest levels of gene-body methylation, whereas the most lowly and highly expressed sets of genes both have low levels of methylation. While gene-body methylation can be seen to efficiently repress the initiation of intragenic transcription, the vast majority of methylated sites within genes are not associated with intragenic promoters. In fact, highly expressed genes initiate the most intragenic transcription, which is inconsistent with the previously held notion that gene-body methylation serves to repress spurious intragenic transcription to allow for efficient transcriptional elongation. These observations lead us to propose a model to explain the presence of human gene-body methylation. This model holds that the repression of intragenic transcription by gene-body methylation is largely epiphenomenal, and suggests that gene-body methylation levels are predominantly shaped via the accessibility of the DNA to methylating enzyme complexes.
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