Decoding the function of bivalent chromatin in development and cancer

Genome Res. 2021 Oct 19;31(12):2170-2184. doi: 10.1101/gr.275736.121. Online ahead of print.


Bivalent chromatin is characterized by the simultaneous presence of H3K4me3 and H3K27me3, histone modifications generally associated with transcriptionally active and repressed chromatin, respectively. Prevalent in embryonic stem cells (ESCs), bivalency is postulated to poise/prime lineage-controlling developmental genes for rapid activation during embryogenesis while maintaining a transcriptionally repressed state in the absence of activation cues; however, this hypothesis remains to be directly tested. Most gene promoters DNA hypermethylated in adult human cancers are bivalently marked in ESCs, and it was speculated that bivalency predisposes them for aberrant de novo DNA methylation and irreversible silencing in cancer, but evidence supporting this model is largely lacking. Here, we show that bivalent chromatin does not poise genes for rapid activation but protects promoters from de novo DNA methylation. Genome-wide studies in differentiating ESCs reveal that activation of bivalent genes is no more rapid than that of other transcriptionally silent genes, challenging the premise that H3K4me3 is instructive for transcription. H3K4me3 at bivalent promoters-a product of the underlying DNA sequence-persists in nearly all cell types irrespective of gene expression and confers protection from de novo DNA methylation. Bivalent genes in ESCs that are frequent targets of aberrant hypermethylation in cancer are particularly strongly associated with loss of H3K4me3/bivalency in cancer. Altogether, our findings suggest that bivalency protects reversibly repressed genes from irreversible silencing and that loss of H3K4me3 may make them more susceptible to aberrant DNA methylation in diseases such as cancer. Bivalency may thus represent a distinct regulatory mechanism for maintaining epigenetic plasticity.