Genome-wide disruption of the epigenetic code is a hallmark of malignancy that encompasses many distinct, highly interactive modifications. Delineating the aberrant epigenome produced during toxicant-mediated malignant transformation will help identify the underlying epigenetic drivers of environmental toxicant-induced carcinogenesis. Gene promoter DNA methylation and gene expression profiling of arsenite-transformed prostate epithelial cells showed a negative correlation between gene expression changes and DNA methylation changes; however, less than 10% of the genes with increased promoter methylation were downregulated. Studies described herein confirm that a majority of the DNA hypermethylation events occur at H3K27me3 marked genes that were already transcriptionally repressed. In contrast to aberrant DNA methylation targeting H3K27me3 pre-marked silent genes, we found that actively expressed C2H2 zinc finger genes (ZNFs) marked with H3K9me3 on their 3' ends, were the favored targets of DNA methylation linked gene silencing. DNA methylation coupled, H3K9me3 mediated gene silencing of ZNF genes was widespread, occurring at individual ZNF genes on multiple chromosomes and across ZNF gene family clusters. At ZNF gene promoters, H3K9me3 and DNA hypermethylation replaced H3K4me3, resulting in a widespread downregulation of ZNF gene expression, which accounted for 8% of all the downregulated genes in the arsenical-transformed cells. In summary, these studies associate toxicant exposure with widespread silencing of ZNF genes by DNA hypermethylation-linked H3K9me3 spreading, further implicating epigenetic dysfunction as a driver of toxicant associated carcinogenesis.
Keywords: C2H2 zinc finger genes; DNA methylation; H3K27me3; H3K4me3; H3K9me3; arsenic; epigenetics; malignant transformation.