Natural history of eukaryotic DNA methylation systems

Prog Mol Biol Transl Sci. 2011;101:25-104. doi: 10.1016/B978-0-12-387685-0.00002-0.


Methylation of cytosines and adenines in DNA is a widespread epigenetic mark in both prokaryotes and eukaryotes. In eukaryotes, it has a profound influence on chromatin structure and dynamics. Recent advances in genomics and biochemistry have considerably elucidated the functions and provenance of these DNA modifications. DNA methylases appear to have emerged first in bacterial restriction-modification (R-M) systems from ancient RNA-modifying enzymes, in transitions that involved acquisition of novel catalytic residues and DNA-recognition features. DNA adenine methylases appear to have been acquired by ciliates, heterolobosean amoeboflagellates, and certain chlorophyte algae. Six distinct clades of cytosine methylases, including the DNMT1, DNMT2, and DNMT3 clades, were acquired by eukaryotes through independent lateral transfer of their precursors from bacteria or bacteriophages. In addition to these, multiple adenine and cytosine methylases were acquired by several families of eukaryotic transposons. In eukaryotes, the DNA-methylase module was often combined with distinct modified and unmodified peptide recognition domains and other modules mediating specialized interactions, for example, the RFD module of DNMT1 which contains a permuted Sm domain linked to a helix-turn-helix domain. In eukaryotes, the evolution of DNA methylases appears to have proceeded in parallel to the elaboration of histone-modifying enzymes and the RNAi system, with functions related to counter-viral and counter-transposon defense, and regulation of DNA repair and differential gene expression being their primary ancestral functions. Diverse DNA demethylation systems that utilize base-excision repair via DNA glycosylases and cytosine deaminases appear to have emerged in multiple eukaryotic lineages. Comparative genomics suggests that the link between cytosine methylation and DNA glycosylases probably emerged first in a novel R-M system in bacteria. Recent studies suggest that the 5mC is not a terminal DNA modification, with enzymes of the Tet/JBP family of 2-oxoglutarate- and iron-dependent dioxygenases further hydroxylating it to form 5-hydroxymethylcytosine (5hmC). These enzymes emerged first in bacteriophages and appear to have been transferred to eukaryotes on one or more occasions. Eukaryotes appear to have recruited three major types of DNA-binding domains (SRA/SAD, TAM/MBD, and CXXC) in discriminating DNA with methylated or unmethylated cytosines. Analysis of the domain architectures of these domains and the DNA methylases suggests that early in eukaryotic evolution they developed a close functional link with SET-domain methylases and Jumonji-related demethylases that operate on peptides in chromatin proteins. In several eukaryotes, other functional connections were elaborated in the form of various combinations between domains related to DNA methylation and those involved in ATP-dependent chromatin remodeling and RNAi. In certain eukaryotes, such as mammals and angiosperms, novel dependencies on the DNA methylation system emerged, which resulted in it affecting unexpected aspects of the biology of these organisms such as parent-offspring interactions. In genomic terms, this was reflected in the emergence of new proteins related to methylation, such as Stella. The well-developed methylation systems of certain heteroloboseans, stramenopiles, chlorophytes, and haptophyte indicate that these might be new model systems to explore the relevance of DNA modifications in eukaryotes.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Intramural

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • DNA Methylation*
  • Eukaryotic Cells
  • Humans