The mechanisms by which the placenta adapts to exogenous stimuli to create a stable and healthy environment for the growing fetus are not well known. Low oxygen tension influences placental function, and is associated with preeclampsia, a condition displaying altered development of placental trophoblast. We hypothesized that oxygen tension affects villous trophoblast by modulation of gene expression through DNA methylation. We used the Infinium HumanMethylation450 BeadChip array to compare the DNA methylation profile of primary cultures of human cytotrophoblasts and syncytiotrophoblasts under < 1%, 8% and 20% oxygen levels. We found no effect of oxygen tension on average DNA methylation for either cell phenotype, but a set of loci became hypermethylated in cytotrophoblasts exposed for 24 h to < 1% oxygen, as compared with those exposed to 8% or 20% oxygen. Hypermethylation with low oxygen tension was independently confirmed by bisulfite-pyrosequencing in a subset of functionally relevant genes including CD59, CFB, GRAM3 and ZNF217. Intriguingly, 70 out of the 147 CpGs that became hypermethylated in < 1% oxygen overlapped with CpG sites that became hypomethylated upon differentiation of cytotrophoblasts into syncytiotrophoblasts. Furthermore, the preponderance of altered sites was located at AP-1 binding sites. We suggest that AP-1 expression is triggered by hypoxia and interacts with DNA methyltransferases (DNMTs) to target methylation at specific sites in the genome, thus causing suppression of the associated genes that are responsible for differentiation of villous cytotrophoblast to syncytiotrophoblast.
Keywords: AP-1; DNA methylation; hypoxia; placenta; preeclampsia.