The mechanisms that establish DNA methylation in eukaryotes are poorly understood. In principle, methylation in a particular chromosomal region may reflect the presence of a "signal" that recruits methylation, the absence of a signal that prevents methylation, or both. Experiments were carried out to address these possibilities for the 1.6 kb zeta-eta (zeta-eta) region, a relict of repeat-induced point mutation (RIP) in the fungus Neurospora crassa. The zeta-eta region directs its own de novo methylation at a variety of chromosomal locations. We tested the methylation potential of a nested set of fragments with deletions from one end of the zeta-eta region, various internal fragments of this region, chimeras of eta and the homologous unmutated allele, theta (theta), and various synthetic variants, integrated precisely in single copy at the am locus on linkage group (LG) VR or the his-3 locus on LG IR. We found that: (1) the zeta-eta region contains at least two non-overlapping methylation signals; (2) different fragments of the region can induce different levels of methylation; (3) methylation induced by zeta-eta sequences can spread far into flanking sequences; (4) fragments as small as 171 bp can trigger methylation; (5) methylation signals behave similarly, but not identically, at different chromosomal sites; (6) mutation density, per se, does not determine whether sequences become methylated; and (7) neither A:T-richness nor high densities of TpA dinucleotides, typical attributes of methylated sequences in Neurospora, are essential features of methylation signals, but both promote de novo methylation. We conclude that de novo methylation of zeta-eta sequences does not simply reflect the absence of signals that prevent methylation; rather, the region contains multiple, positive signals that trigger methylation. These findings conflict with earlier models for the control of DNA methylation, including the simplest version of the collapsed chromatin model.
Copyright 2000 Academic Press.