[Profiles of DNA methylation in normal and cancer cells.]

Weber, M.

Med Sci (Paris)

2008-09 / vol 24 / pages 731-4


In eukaryotes, the epigenetic mark DNA methylation is found exclusively at cytosine residues in the CpG islands of genes, transposons and intergenic DNA. Among functional roles, DNA methylation is essential for mammalian embryonic development, and is classically thought to function by stably silencing promoter activity. However, until recently, understanding of the distribution of cytosine methylation in the whole genome – and hence, identification of its targets – was very limited. High-throughput methodologies, including methylated DNA immunoprecipitation, have recently revealed genome-wide mapping of DNA methylation, and provided new and unexpected data. Clearly DNA methylation is selectively associated with some key promoters- and is not a prerequisite for promoter inactivation, since strong CpG island promoters are mostly unmethylated, even when inactive. Most germline-specific genes are methylated and permanently silenced in somatic cells, suggesting a role of this mark in maintaining somatic cellular identity. These large scale studies will also help understanding the deregulation of DNA methylation associated with cancer, among which unmethylation of germinal cells genes, and recent observtion of large hypomethylated regions in tumoral specimens. The next challenge will be to understand if these methylation changes occur randomly, or more likely are specified by oncogenes or linked to environmental pressure.

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