Epigenetics: differential DNA methylation in mammalian somatic tissues

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Epigenetics refers to heritable phenotypic alterations in the absence of DNA sequence changes, and DNA methylation is one of the extensively studied epigenetic alterations. DNA methylation is an evolutionally conserved mechanism to regulate gene expression in mammals. Because DNA methyation is preserved during DNA replication it can be inherited. Thus, DNA methylation could be a major mechanism by which to produce semi-stable changes in gene expression in somatic tissues. Although it remains controversial whether germ-line DNA methylation in mammalian genomes is stably heritable, frequent tissue-specific and disease-specific de novo methylation events are observed during somatic cell development/differentiation. In this minireview, we discuss the use of restriction landmark genomic scanning, together with in silico analysis, to identify differentially methylated regions in the mammalian genome. We then present a rough overview of quantitative DNA methylation patterns at 4600 Not I sites and more than 150 differentially methylated regions in several C57BL/6J mouse tissues. Comparative analysis between mice and humans suggests that some, but not all, tissue-specific differentially methylated regions are conserved. A deeper understanding of cell-type-specific differences in DNA methylation might lead to a better illustration of the mechanisms behind tissue-specific differentiation in mammals.

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