Background: Chromatin epigenetics participate in control of gene expression during metazoan development. DNA methylation and post-translational modifications (PTMs) of histones have been extensively characterised in cell types present in, or derived from, mouse embryos. In embryonic stem cells (ESCs) derived from blastocysts, factors involved in deposition of epigenetic marks regulate properties related to self-renewal and pluripotency. In the germ lineage, changes in histone PTMs and DNA demethylation occur during formation of the primordial germ cells (PGCs) to reset the epigenome of the future gametes. Trimethylation of histone H3 on lysine 27 (H3K27me3) by Polycomb group proteins is involved in several epigenome-remodelling steps, but it remains unclear whether these epigenetic features are conserved in non-mammalian vertebrates. To investigate this question, we compared the abundance and nuclear distribution of the main histone PTMs, 5-methylcytosine (5mC) and 5-hydroxymethylcytosine (5hmC) in chicken ESCs, PGCs and blastodermal cells (BCs) with differentiated chicken ESCs and embryonic fibroblasts. In addition, we analysed the expression of chromatin modifier genes to better understand the establishment and dynamics of chromatin epigenetic profiles.
Results: The nuclear distributions of most PTMs and 5hmC in chicken stem cells were similar to what has been described for mammalian cells. However, unlike mouse pericentric heterochromatin (PCH), chicken ESC PCH contained high levels of trimethylated histone H3 on lysine 27 (H3K27me3). In differentiated chicken cells, PCH was less enriched in H3K27me3 relative to chromatin overall. In PGCs, the H3K27me3 global level was greatly reduced, whereas the H3K9me3 level was elevated. Most chromatin modifier genes known in mammals were expressed in chicken ESCs, PGCs and BCs. Genes presumably involved in de novo DNA methylation were very highly expressed. DNMT3B and HELLS/SMARCA6 were highly expressed in chicken ESCs, PGCs and BCs compared to differentiated chicken ESCs and embryonic fibroblasts, and DNMT3A was strongly expressed in ESCs, differentiated ESCs and BCs.
Conclusions: Chicken ESCs and PGCs differ from their mammalian counterparts with respect to H3K27 methylation. High enrichment of H3K27me3 at PCH is specific to pluripotent cells in chicken. Our results demonstrate that the dynamics in chromatin constitution described during mouse development is not universal to all vertebrate species.
Keywords: Chicken blastocyst; Chicken embryonic stem cells; Chicken primordial germ cells; DNA methylation; Epigenetic reprogramming; H3K27me3.