Toward a base-resolution panorama of the in vivo impact of cytosine methylation on transcription factor binding

Genome Biol. 2022 Jul 7;23(1):151. doi: 10.1186/s13059-022-02713-y.


Background: While methylation of CpG dinucleotides is traditionally considered antagonistic to the DNA-binding activity of most transcription factors (TFs), recent in vitro studies have revealed a more complex picture, suggesting that over a third of TFs may preferentially bind to methylated sequences. Expanding these in vitro observations to in vivo TF binding preferences is challenging since the effect of methylation of individual CpG sites cannot be easily isolated from the confounding effects of DNA accessibility and regional DNA methylation. Thus, in vivo methylation preferences of most TFs remain uncharacterized.

Results: We introduce joint accessibility-methylation-sequence (JAMS) models, which connect the strength of the binding signal observed in ChIP-seq to the DNA accessibility of the binding site, regional methylation level, DNA sequence, and base-resolution cytosine methylation. We show that JAMS models quantitatively explain TF occupancy, recapitulate cell type-specific TF binding, and have high positive predictive value for identification of TFs affected by intra-motif methylation. Analysis of 2209 ChIP-seq experiments results in high-confidence JAMS models for 260 TFs, revealing a negative association between in vivo TF occupancy and intra-motif methylation for 45% of studied TFs, as well as 16 TFs that are predicted to bind to methylated sites, including 11 novel methyl-binding TFs mostly from the multi-zinc finger family.

Conclusions: Our study substantially expands the repertoire of in vivo methyl-binding TFs, but also suggests that most TFs that prefer methylated CpGs in vitro present themselves as methylation agnostic in vivo, potentially due to the balancing effect of competition with other methyl-binding proteins.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Binding Sites
  • Cytosine
  • DNA / metabolism
  • DNA Methylation*
  • Protein Binding
  • Transcription Factors* / metabolism


  • Transcription Factors
  • Cytosine
  • DNA