APOBEC3A efficiently deaminates methylated, but not TET-oxidized, cytosine bases in DNA

Nucleic Acids Res. 2017 Jul 27;45(13):7655-7665. doi: 10.1093/nar/gkx345.


AID/APOBEC family enzymes are best known for deaminating cytosine bases to uracil in single-stranded DNA, with characteristic sequence preferences that can produce mutational signatures in targets such as retroviral and cancer cell genomes. These deaminases have also been proposed to function in DNA demethylation via deamination of either 5-methylcytosine (mC) or TET-oxidized mC bases (ox-mCs), which include 5-hydroxymethylcytosine, 5-formylcytosine and 5-carboxylcytosine. One specific family member, APOBEC3A (A3A), has been shown to readily deaminate mC, raising the prospect of broader activity on ox-mCs. To investigate this claim, we developed a novel assay that allows for parallel profiling of activity on all modified cytosines. Our steady-state kinetic analysis reveals that A3A discriminates against all ox-mCs by >3700-fold, arguing that ox-mC deamination does not contribute substantially to demethylation. A3A is, by contrast, highly proficient at C/mC deamination. Under conditions of excess enzyme, C/mC bases can be deaminated to completion in long DNA segments, regardless of sequence context. Interestingly, under limiting A3A, the sequence preferences observed with targeting unmodified cytosine are further exaggerated when deaminating mC. Our study informs how methylation, oxidation, and deamination can interplay in the genome and suggests A3A's potential utility as a biotechnological tool to discriminate between cytosine modification states.

MeSH terms

  • 5-Methylcytosine / chemistry
  • Base Sequence
  • Cytidine Deaminase / metabolism*
  • Cytosine / chemistry*
  • DNA / chemistry*
  • DNA / metabolism*
  • DNA Methylation
  • Humans
  • In Vitro Techniques
  • Kinetics
  • Models, Biological
  • Oxidation-Reduction
  • Proteins / metabolism*
  • Recombinant Proteins / metabolism
  • Substrate Specificity


  • Proteins
  • Recombinant Proteins
  • 5-Methylcytosine
  • Cytosine
  • DNA
  • APOBEC3A protein, human
  • Cytidine Deaminase