Genome-wide demethylation destabilizes CTG.CAG trinucleotide repeats in mammalian cells

Hum Mol Genet. 2004 Dec 1;13(23):2979-89. doi: 10.1093/hmg/ddh317. Epub 2004 Sep 30.


Many neurological diseases, including myotonic dystrophy, Huntington's disease and several spinocerebellar ataxias, result from intergenerational increases in the length of a CTG.CAG repeat tract. Although the basis for intergenerational repeat expansion is unclear, repeat tracts are especially unstable during germline development and production of gametes. Mammalian development is characterized by waves of genome-wide demethylation and remethylation. To test whether changes in methylation status might contribute to trinucleotide repeat instability, we examined the effects of DNA methyltransferase inhibitors on trinucleotide repeat stability in mammalian cells. Using a selectable genetic system for detection of repeat contractions in CHO cells, we showed that the rate of contractions increased >1000-fold upon treatment with the DNA methyltransferase inhibitor 5-aza-deoxycytidine (5-aza-CdR). The link between DNA demethylation and repeat instability was strengthened by similar results obtained with hydralazine treatment, which inhibits expression of DNA methyltransferase. In human cells from myotonic dystrophy patients, treatment with 5-aza-CdR strongly destabilized repeat tracts in the DMPK gene, with a clear bias toward expansion. The bias toward expansion events and changes in repeat length that occur in jumps, rather than by accumulation of small changes, are reminiscent of the intergenerational repeat instability observed in human patients. The dramatic destabilizing effect of DNA methyltransferase inhibitors supports the hypothesis that changes in methylation patterns during epigenetic reprogramming may trigger the intergenerational repeat expansions that lead to disease.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Azacitidine / analogs & derivatives*
  • Azacitidine / pharmacology
  • CHO Cells
  • CpG Islands
  • Cricetinae
  • DNA Methylation* / drug effects
  • Decitabine
  • Genome, Human*
  • Humans
  • Hydralazine / pharmacology


  • Hydralazine
  • Decitabine
  • Azacitidine