Si J, Boumber YA, Shu J, Qin T, Ahmed S, He R, Jelinek J, Issa JP
The DNA hypomethylating drug decitabine (DAC) reactivates silenced gene expression in cancer and is approved for the treatment of the myelodysplastic syndrome. Gene reactivation after DAC is variable and incompletely understood. Here, we established a cell line system (YB5) derived from the SW48 colon cancer cell line to study DAC-induced reactivation. YB5 contains a hypermethylated cytomegalovirus promoter driving green fluorescent protein (GFP), and the locus is transcriptionally silent. GFP reexpression can be achieved by DAC treatment, but the expression level of individual cells is heterogeneous. DAC-treated YB5 cells were separated into GFP-positive and GFP-negative subpopulations. By comparing DAC-treated sorted GFP-positive and GFP-negative cells, we found that their methylation levels were similarly decreased but that histone modifications and histone H3 densities were remarkably different. Despite a similar degree of (incomplete) DNA hypomethylation, GFP-positive cells reverted to an active chromatin structure marked by higher H3K9 acetylation, lower H3K27 trimethylation, and lower promoter nucleosome density. GFP-negative cells had histone modifications and promoter nucleosome density, similar to parental cells. On DAC withdrawal, gradual resilencing and remethylation occurred in both GFP-positive and GFP-negative cells, and the resilencing correlated with a gradual increase in nucleosome occupancy in GFP-positive cells. These data show that hypomethylation alone after DAC is insufficient for gene expression induction, and that chromatin resetting to an active state including nucleosome eviction is required for activation of protein expression. Our findings suggest that gene expression is the key in optimizing DAC treatment strategies in the clinic.