Copyright: Masand, Natasha
Copyright: Masand, Natasha
DNA cytosine methylation is an important epigenetic modification that plays a key role in gene expression. DNA methylation has been shown to be involved in numerous processes, including X-chromosome inactivation in mammals, retrotransposon silencing, genomic imprinting, carcinogenesis and the regulation of tissue specific gene expression during development. Gene expression is tightly regulated via DNA methylation (5mC) and the aberrant expression of meiotic genes in mitotic cells via CpG promoter hypomethylation has been proposed to cause cancer. Cancer/Testis Antigens (CTAs) are a group of genes that encode tumour specific antigens and are expressed in the testis, certain cancers but not in normal post-natal somatic tissues. CpG island methylation and histone modifications appear to play a role in the epigenetic regulation of CTA expression, however, very little is known about their functions in vivo. A widely studied but poorly understood question to date is the mechanisms behind aberrant CTA reactivation in cancer. Given that 5mC mediated gene repression has been found to exist in vertebrate genomes and CTAs have also been identified to be a subset of highly evolutionarily conserved genes, it is critical to understand the role of 5mC mediated CTA silencing in vertebrates. By gaining a deeper understanding into the mechanisms behind this highly conserved pattern of gene repression on a specific subset of genes, we would be able to identify methods to prevent aberrant gene expression. In this study, I analysed publicly available whole genome bisulfite sequencing (WGBS), RNA-seq and chromatin immuno-precipitation followed by massively parallel sequencing (ChIP-seq) data of developing embryonic and adult somatic tissue of 3 vertebrate species to elucidate the evolutionary epigenetic regulation of CTAs in vertebrate genomes. Integrative WGBS, RNA-seq and ChIP-seq analysis revealed that CTAs are evolutionarily conserved in zebrafish, mice and humans and mechanisms of their epigenetic regulation are also conserved. I observed that histone modifications could potentially serve as an indicator of the methylation status of CTA gene promoters and that the expression of CTAs was inversely related to gene promoter 5mC levels. I demonstrate that CTAs when over-expressed cause embryonic lethality in zebrafish and the same genes are aberrantly hypomethylated at their CpG islands in a subset of human cancers. Overall, my work shows that CTAs are epigenetically regulated in an evolutionarily conserved manner and possibly via a conserved transcription factor, ETS1, that is expressed both in embryonic and cancerous tissue.