Genome-wide epigenetic reprogramming in mammalian germ cells, zygote and early embryos, plays a crucial role in regulating genome functions at critical stages of development. We show here that mouse primordial germ cells (PGCs) exhibit dynamic changes in epigenetic modifications between days 10.5 and 12.5 post coitum (dpc). First, contrary to previous suggestions, we show that PGCs do indeed acquire genome-wide de novo methylation during early development and migration into the genital ridge. However, following their entry into the genital ridge, there is rapid erasure of DNA methylation of regions within imprinted and non-imprinted loci. For most genes, the erasure commences simultaneously in PGCs in both male and female embryos, which is completed within 1 day of development. Based on the kinetics of this process, we suggest that this is an active demethylation process initiated upon the entry of PGCs into the gonadal anlagen. The timing of reprogramming in PGCs is crucial since it ensures that germ cells of both sexes acquire an equivalent epigenetic state prior to the differentiation of the definitive male and female germ cells in which new parental imprints are established subsequently. Some repetitive elements, however, show incomplete erasure, which may be essential for chromosome stability and for preventing activation of transposons to reduce the risk of germline mutations. Aberrant epigenetic reprogramming in the germ line would cause the inheritance of epimutations that may have consequences for human diseases as suggested by studies on mouse models.
Copyright 2002 Elsevier Science Ireland Ltd.