Scientists from the Burnham Institute for Medical Research (BIMR) and Illumina Inc., in collaboration with stem cell researchers around the world, have found that the DNA of human embryonic stem cells is chemically modified in a characteristic, predictable pattern. This pattern distinguishes human embryonic stem cells from normal adult cells and cell lines, including cancer cells. The study, which appears online today in Genome Research, should help researchers understand how epigenetic factors contribute to self-renewal and developmental pluripotence, unique characteristics of human embryonic stem cells that may one day allow them to be used to replace diseased or damaged cells with healthy ones in a process called therapeutic cloning.
Embryonic stem cells are derived from embryos that are undergoing a period of intense cellular activity, including the chemical addition of methyl groups to specific DNA sequences in a process known as DNA methylation. The methylation and demethylation of particular DNA sequences in the genome are known to have profound effects on cellular behavior and differentiation. For example, DNA methylation is one of the critical epigenetic events leading to the inactivation of one X chromosome in female cells. Failure to establish a normal pattern of DNA methylation during embryogenesis can cause immunological deficiencies, mental retardation and other abnormalities such as Rett, Prader-Willi, Angelman and Beckwith-Wiedemann syndromes.
Until recently, DNA methylation could only be studied one gene at a time. But a new microarray-based technique developed at Illumina enabled the scientists conducting this new study to simultaneously examine hundreds of potential methylation sites, thereby revealing global patterns. "Analyzing the DNA methylation pattern of hundreds of genes at a time opens a new window for epigenetic research," says Dr. Jian-Bing Fan, director of molecular biology at Illumina. "Exciting insights into development, aging, and cancer should come quickly from understanding global patterns of DNA methylation."
To examine global DNA methylation patterns in human embryonic stem cells, the researchers analyzed 14 human embryonic stem cell lines from diverse ethnic origins, derived in several different labs, and maintained for various times in culture. They tested over 1500 potential methylation sites in the DNA of these cells and in other cell types and found that the embryonic stem cells shared essentially identical methylation patterns in a large number of gene regions. Furthermore, these methylation patterns were distinct from those in adult stem cells, differentiated cells, and cancer cells.
"Our results suggest that therapeutic cloning of patient-specific human embryonic stem cells will be an enormous challenge, as nuclei from adult cells will have to be epigenetically reprogrammed to reflect the specific DNA methylation signature of normal human embryonic stem cells," explains Dr. Jeanne Loring, co-director of the stem cell center at BIMR. "This reinforces the need for basic research directed at understanding the fundamental biology of human embryonic stem cells before therapeutic uses can be considered."
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