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MOLECULAR MECHANISMS THAT GOVERN STEM CELL DIFFERENTIATION AND THEIR IMPLICATIONS IN CANCER
Mammalian development is orchestrated by global transcriptional changes, which drive cellular differentiation, giving rise to diverse cell types. The mechanisms that mediate the temporal control of early differentiation can be studied using embryonic stem cell (ESCs) and embryonal carcinoma cells (ECCs) as model systems. In these stem cells, differentiation signals induce transcriptional repression of genes that maintain pluripotency (PpG) and activation of genes required for lineage specification. Expression of PpGs is controlled by these genes’ proximal and distal regulatory elements, promoters and enhancers, respectively. Previously published work from our laboratory showed that during differentiation of ESCs, the repression of PpGs is accompanied by enhancer silencing mediated by the Lsd1/Mi2-NuRD-Dnmt3a complex. The enzymes in this complex catalyze histone H3K27Ac deacetylation and H3K4me1/2 demethylation followed by a gain of DNA methylation mediated by the DNA methyltransferase, Dnmt3a. The absence of these chromatin changes at PpG enhancers during ESC differentiation leads to their incomplete repression. In cancer, abnormal expression of PpG is commonly observed. Our studies show that in differentiating F9 embryonal carcinoma cells (F9 ECCs), PpG maintain substantial expression concomitant with an absence of Lsd1-mediated H3K4me1 demethylation at their respective enhancers. The continued presence of H3K4me1 blocks the downstream activity of Dnmt3a, leading to the absence of DNA methylation at these sites. The absence of Lsd1 activity at PpG enhancers establishes a “primed” chromatin state distinguished by the absence of DNA methylation and the presence of H3K4me1. We further established that the activity of Lsd1 in these cells was inhibited by Oct3/4, which was partially repressed post-differentiation. Our data reveal that sustained expression of the pioneer pluripotency factor Oct3/4 disrupts the enhancer silencing mechanism. This generates an aberrant “primed” enhancer state, which is susceptible to activation and supports tumorigenicity.
As differentiation proceeds and multiple layers of cells are produced in the early embryo, the inner cells are depleted of O2, which triggers endothelial cell differentiation. These cells form vascular structures that allow transport of O2 and nutrients to cells. Using ESC differentiation to endothelial cells as a model system, studies covered in this thesis work elucidated a mechanism by which the transcription factor Vascular endothelial zinc finger 1 (Vezf1) regulates endothelial differentiation and formation of vascular structures. Our data show that Vezf1-deficient ESCs fail to upregulate the expression of pro-angiogenic genes in response to endothelial differentiation induction. This defect was shown to be the result of the elevated expression of the stemness factor Cbp/p300-interacting transactivator 2 (Cited2) at the onset of differentiation. The improper expression of Cited2 sequesters histone acetyltransferase p300 from depositing active histone modifications at the regulatory elements of angiogenesis-specific genes that, in turn, impedes their activation.
Besides the discovery of epigenetic mechanisms that regulate gene expression during differentiation, our studies also include development of a sensitive method to identify activities of a specific DNA methyltransferase at genomic regions. In mammals, DNA methylation occurs at the C5 position of cytosine bases. The addition of this chemical modification is catalyzed by a family of enzymes called DNA methyltransferases (Dnmts). Current methodologies, which determine the distribution of Dnmts or DNA methylation levels in genomes, show the combined activity of multiple Dnmts at their target sites. To determine the activity of a particular Dnmt in response to an external stimulus, we developed a method, Transition State Covalent Crosslinking DNA Immunoprecipitation (TSCC-DIP), which traps catalytically active Dnmts at their transition state with the DNA substrate. Our goal is to produce a strategy that would enable the determination of the direct genomic targets of specific Dnmts, creating a valuable tool for studying the dynamic changes in DNA methylation in any biological process.