Varshney D, Vavrova-Anderson J, Oler AJ, Cowling VH, Cairns BR, White RJ
Short interspersed nuclear elements (SINEs), such as Alu, spread by retrotransposition, which requires their transcripts to be copied into DNA and then inserted into new chromosomal sites. This can lead to genetic damage through insertional mutagenesis and chromosomal rearrangements between non-allelic SINEs at distinct loci. SINE DNA is heavily methylated and this was thought to suppress its accessibility and transcription, thereby protecting against retrotransposition. Here we provide several lines of evidence that methylated SINE DNA is occupied by RNA polymerase III, including the use of high-throughput bisulphite sequencing of ChIP DNA. We find that loss of DNA methylation has little effect on accessibility of SINEs to transcription machinery or their expression in vivo. In contrast, a histone methyltransferase inhibitor selectively promotes SINE expression and occupancy by RNA polymerase III. The data suggest that methylation of histones rather than DNA plays a dominant role in suppressing SINE transcription.