Foreign DNA can be readily integrated into the genomes of mammalian embryonic cells by retroviral infection, DNA microinjection, and transfection protocols. However, the transgenic DNA is frequently not expressed or is expressed at levels far below expectation. In a number of organisms such as yeast, plants, Drosophila, and nematodes, silencing of transfected genes is triggered by the interaction between adjacent or dispersed copies of genes of identical sequence. We set out to determine whether a mechanism similar to repeat-induced gene silencing (RIGS) is responsible for the silencing of transgenes in murine embryonal carcinoma stem cells. We compared the expression of identical reporter gene constructs in cells carrying single or multiple copies and found that the level of expression per integrated copy was more than 10-fold higher in single-copy integrants. In cells carrying tandem copies of the transgene, many copies were methylated and clones frequently failed to express both copies of near-identical integrated alleles. Addition of extra copies of the reporter gene coding sequence reduced the level of expression from the same reporter driven by a eukaryotic promoter. We also found that inhibitors of histone deacetylase such as trichostatin A forestall the silencing of multicopy transgenes, suggesting that chromatin mediates the silencing of transfected genes. This evidence is consistent with the idea that RIGS does occur in mammalian embryonic stem cells although silencing of single-copy transgenes also occurs, suggesting that RIGS is only one of the mechanisms responsible for triggering transgene silencing.
Copyright 2002 Elsevier Science (USA).