Wu Y, Patchev AV, Daniel G, Almeida OF, Spengler D
Early-life stress (ELS) increases the vulnerability thresholds for stress-related diseases such as major depression and anxiety by inducing alterations in the structure and function of neural circuits and endocrine pathways. We previously demonstrated the contribution of epigenetic mechanisms to the long-term programming of the hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenal axis activity following ELS exposure in male mice. Here, ELS comprising daily separation of pups from their dams on postnatal days 1-10 was observed to up-regulate the expression of the pituitary proopiomelanocortin (Pomc) gene; POMC serves as a prohormone for ACTH, a key mediator of the adrenocortical response to stress. Detailed analysis revealed that the increase in Pomc mRNA levels results from a reduction in DNA methylation at a critical regulatory region of the Pomc gene; interestingly, this change occurs with some delay after ELS and persists for up to 1 year. Using a Pomc-expressing pituitary cell line (AtT20), we confirmed a role for DNA methylation in restraining Pomc expression under resting conditions: specifically, we show that CpG site-specific methylation of the Pomc promoter represses Pomc mRNA transcription. Further, we show high-affinity binding of methyl-CpG binding protein-2 to the distal promoter of Pomc, suggesting that methyl-CpG binding protein-2 acts in association with the chromatin modifiers histone deacetylase 2 and DNA methyltransferase 1 to repress Pomc gene expression. Collectively, these experiments contribute to our understanding of the mechanisms through which environmental cues are translated into stable changes ("cellular memory") in neuroendocrine cells.