James SJ, Shpyleva S, Melnyk S, Pavliv O, Pogribny IP
Epigenetic mechanisms regulate programmed gene expression during prenatal neurogenesis and serve as a mediator between genetics and environment in postnatal life. The recent discovery of 5-hydroxymethylcytosine (5-hmC), with highest concentration in the brain, has added a new dimension to epigenetic regulation of neurogenesis and the development of complex behavior disorders. Here, we take a candidate gene approach to define the role 5-hmC in Engrailed-2 (EN-2) gene expression in the autism cerebellum. The EN-2 homeobox transcription factor, previously implicated in autism, is essential for normal cerebellar patterning and development. We previously reported EN-2 overexpression associated with promoter DNA hypermethylation in the autism cerebellum but because traditional DNA methylation methodology cannot distinguish 5-methylcytosine (5-mC) from 5-hmC, we now extend our investigation by quantifying global and gene-specific 5-mC and 5-hmC. Globally, 5-hmC was significantly increased in the autism cerebellum and accompanied by increases in the expression of de novo methyltransferases DNMT3A and DNMT3B, ten-eleven translocase genes TET1 and TET3, and in 8-oxo-deoxyguanosine (8-oxo-dG) content, a marker of oxidative DNA damage. Within the EN-2 promoter, there was a significant positive correlation between 5-hmC content and EN-2 gene expression. Based on reports of reduced MeCP2 affinity for 5-hmC, MeCP2 binding studies in the EN-2 promoter revealed a significant decrease in repressive MeCP2 binding that may contribute to the aberrant overexpression of EN-2. Because normal cerebellar development depends on perinatal EN-2 downregulation, the sustained postnatal overexpression suggests that a critical window of cerebellar development may have been missed in some individuals with autism with downstream developmental consequences. Epigenetic regulation of the programmed on-off switches in gene expression that occur at birth and during early brain development warrants further investigation.