Cadet J, Wagner JR
5-Methylcytosine and methylated histones have been considered for a long time as stable epigenetic marks of chromatin involved in gene regulation. This concept has been recently revisited with the detection of large amounts of 5-hydroxymethylcytosine, now considered as the sixth DNA base, in mouse embryonic stem cells, Purkinje neurons and brain tissues. The dioxygenases that belong to the ten eleven translocation (TET) oxygenase family have been shown to initiate the formation of this methyl oxidation product of 5-methylcytosine that is also generated although far less efficiently by radical reactions involving hydroxyl radical and one-electron oxidants. It was found as additional striking data that iterative TET-mediated oxidation of 5-hydroxymethylcytosine gives rise to 5-formylcytosine and 5-carboxylcytosine. This survey focuses on chemical and biochemical aspects of the enzymatic oxidation reactions of 5-methylcytosine that are likely to be involved in active demethylation pathways through the implication of enzymatic deamination of 5-methylcytosine oxidation products and/or several base excision repair enzymes. The high biological relevance of the latter modified bases explains why major efforts have been devoted to the design of a broad range of assays aimed at measuring globally or at the single base resolution, 5-hydroxymethylcytosine and the two other oxidation products in the DNA of cells and tissues. Another critical issue that is addressed in this review article deals with the assessment of the possible role of 5-methylcytosine oxidation products, when present in elevated amounts in cellular DNA, in terms of mutagenesis and interference with key cellular enzymes including DNA and RNA polymerases.