Two Epigenetic Targets Are More Effective Than One

Lysine-specific histone demethylase 1 (LSD1) via Wikimedia Commons

Epigenetics is a new and exciting territory to explore as we understand more about the role it plays in gene silencing and expression. Because epigenetic regulation of gene expression is caused by specific modification of histone proteins (e.g., methylation) that play a role in disease states like cancer, enzymes like histone deacetylases (HDACs) become viable drug targets. One drawback to inhibiting proteins that modify histones is even when selectively targeting HDACs, the effects can be far ranging with multiple HDAC-containing protein complexes found throughout the cell. These broad effects minimize the effectiveness of an inhibitor, caught between efficacy and toxicity. A recent article in Nature Communications explored how using a single compound to target two epigenetic enzymes was more effective than any individual inhibitor or combination of inhibitors. Continue reading

Announcing: Stem Cells in the 4th Dimension—Mechanisms of Stem Cell Aging and Maturation

Image courtesy of Carlos Marti-Figueroa, Wisconsin Institute for Discovery, University of Wisconsin, Madison

Image courtesy of Carlos Marti-Figueroa, Wisconsin Institute for Discovery, University of Wisconsin, Madison

On April 13th, the BTC Institute and Promega Corporation will host the 11th Annual Wisconsin Stem Cell Symposium — Stem Cells in the 4th Dimension: Mechanisms of Stem Cell Aging and Maturation.

Our co-coordinators at the UW-Madison Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine Center have put together an outstanding list of presenters, including leading researchers who are investigating the effects of aging on stem cell populations and their progeny and recapitulating aging mechanisms in vitro to mature human stem cell derivatives and transplants.

The morning session will review systemic and cell autonomous factors known to impact stem cell maturation, aging and senescence. The afternoon session will focus on using these approaches and understanding to develop in vitro models of matured, stem cell-derived neural, cardiac, and pancreatic cells and tissues for regenerative medicine applications.


  • Endocrine, micro-RNA, epigenetic, and metabolic regulators of aging
  • Systemic regulators elucidated by parabiosis
  • Treatment of age-related stem cell dysfunction
  • In vivo and in vitro models of neural, musculoskeletal, cardiac, and pancreatic tissue maturation

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Rewriting the Histone Code: Searching for Treatments for Stage IV Thyroid Cancers

Chromatin fiberOften a diagnosis of thyroid cancer is associated with a good prognosis and fairly straightforward surgical treatments to remove the tumor followed by radioactive iodine ablation. Such treatment works well in tumors that have not metastasized and retain enough of their thyroid cell “identity” that they can still accumulate radioactive iodine.

However, aggressive thyroid cancers, which often metastasize and recur, do not respond to standard treatments because they are generally too dedifferentiated to accumulate iodine, so alternative treatments are needed.

One approach is to look for compounds that will reverse dedifferentiation, making tumor cells more likely to take up and concentrate radioactive iodine regardless of their location in the body. One possible target to effect dedifferentiation is epigenetic modification of histone proteins.

Histone proteins are more than the structural components of the nucleosome that organizes the chromatin inside cells. Histone proteins are subject to a host of protein modifications on their N-terminal tails such as acetylation, phosphorylation, methylation, ubiquitination and ADP-ribosylation. These various modifications are seen as creating a “histone code” that is read by other proteins and protein complexes (1). This code regulates patterns of gene expression and activity for a cell—in part resulting in a differentiated phenotype. Previous studies have suggested that some histone deacetylase (HDAC) inhibitors (e.g., valproic acid) can reverse some of the dedifferentiation associated with aggressive cancers (2).

Jang, et al. in a recent paper (3) published in Cancer Gene Therapy synthesized a group of HDAC inhibitor analogs (AB1–AB13) and tested them for their ability to inhibit growth of three aggressive human thyroid cancer cell lines and induce partial re-differentiation to the thyroid cell phenotype. Continue reading

How MicroRNAs Have a Big Effect on Genetic Regulation

miR-133 microRNA (green) and myogenin mRNA (red) in differentiating C2C12 cells. Image by Ryan Jeffs, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

miR-133 microRNA (green) and myogenin mRNA (red) in differentiating C2C12 cells. Image by Ryan Jeffs, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Some of us scientists who have been around for a while still think about RNA molecules falling into three categories: messenger RNA (mRNA), ribosomal RNA (rRNA) and transfer RNA (tRNA). However, within the past few decades I have had to revise my outdated RNA classification scheme as scientists discover exciting new classes of RNAs that do some fairly amazing things. For example, in the early 1980s, Thomas Cech discovered ribozymes, RNAs that have catalytic functions (1), and in the early 1990s, researchers began to take interest in short noncoding RNAs that act as a genetic regulators, the first of which was discovered in C. elegans (2). RNA is no longer simply a biological middleman between DNA and protein. These ephemeral nucleic acid molecules play a much bigger role of cellular physiology and gene regulation than we had previously ascribed to RNA.

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When DNA Is Not Enough: New Research Suggests Epigenetic Factors Play an Important Role in the High Mortality Rate of the Devi Facial Tumor Disease

tazThe Devil Facial Tumor Disease (DFTD) is a contagious cancer in Tasmanian Devils that is threatening the species with extinction. This disease is spread from individual to individual and has a 100% mortality rate. It is so deadly because, although the DFTF cells should be attached and killed by the host devil’s immune system, for some reason they are not—and no one is sure why. A study published in PNAS in March of last year (1) showed that DFTD cells don’t express surface MHC molecules. MHC class I and class II molecules are crucial for proper immune response, and their absence on the cell surface could explain why the DFTD cells do not stimulate an immune response.

The authors found that the loss of MHC expression is maintained as the cells divide, and is not a result of structural mutations in the genes responsible for MHC expression. Instead the authors found that this down regulation was the result of regulatory changes including epigenetic modifications to histones. Continue reading

Histone Deacetylase Activity in Health and Disease

Histones_11340TAEpigenetics is the study of heritable changes in gene expression arising from chromosomal changes that are not caused by alterations in DNA sequence. It seems that almost daily, this field of study is revealing more and more about the ways in which genes are turned on or off–governing cell fate and regulating response to environmental factors such as stress or toxin exposure. In recent years there have been numerous papers implicating epigenetic mechanisms in the control of biological events as varied as fat burning in response to exercise, cancer progression, and control of memory and other neurological processes.

Histone modification by acetylation is one of the most well-studied epigenetic mechanisms. A quick literature search shows that more than 60 papers discussing some aspect of histone acetylation/deacetylation have already been published in 2014. In chromatin, DNA is tightly wrapped around histones. Acetylation of lysine residues on the histone tail by histone acetylases (HATs) neutralizes the positive charge on the histone molecule, decreasing its ability to bind the DNA backbone, and increasing expression by allowing transcription factors to access the DNA. On the other hand, histone deacetlyases (HDACs) remove these acetyl groups, causing tighter binding to DNA and decreasing gene expression. Continue reading

Inheriting Fear: Mice Haunted by Parent’s Fears

baby miceImagine that you are sitting in your room when you smell cherries and you are suddenly, inexplicably afraid. Although odors can elicit strong emotional responses, you have no bad memories of cherries. What you don’t know is that your father did, and you have inherited his fear. Sound far fetched? Maybe not. A paper published in Nature Neuroscience found just such an inherited association in mice (1). Continue reading

Epigenetics and Exercise

Turning on some genes

Turning on some genes

If, like me, you sometimes need more motivation to exercise consistently—even though you know that it is good for you—you may be interested in the findings of a paper published recently in PLOS Genetics. The paper showed that consistent exercise over a 6-month period caused potentially beneficial changes in gene expression. In short, regular exercise caused expression of some “good” genes, and repression of “bad” ones, and these changes appeared to be controlled by epigenetic mechanisms.

Epigenetic changes are modifications to DNA that affect gene expression but don’t alter the underlying sequence. Perhaps the best understood example of an epigenetic change is DNA methylation—where methyl groups bind to the DNA at specific sites and alter expression, often by preventing transcription. Epigenetic changes have been shown to occur throughout all stages of development and in response to environmental factors such as diet, toxin exposure, or stress. The study of epigenetics is revealing more and more about how the information stored in our DNA is expressed in different tissues at different times and under different environmental circumstances. Continue reading

Optimizing a DNA Methylation Analysis Workflow

methyledge seminarWhen Aristotle compared epigenetics to a net (1), he could not have predicted how right he was.  Recent research has revealed that mechanisms underlying epigenetic effects are numerous and interdependent as are the knots in a net. Each epigenetic mechanism has its players: enzymes, functional groups, substrates etc.  The most important aspect of an epigenetic trait is its reversibility. Methylation of DNA was the first epigenetic modification to be discovered, and 5-cytosine methylation was the first to be linked with gene expression status. Currently, the most popular method for measuring  CpG island methylation status is a bisulfite treatment of DNA followed by PCR or sequencing.

In this week’s webinar, Promega R&D scientist, Karen Reece focused on a workflow from DNA purification to analysis. She described the best methods for DNA isolation, quantification, bisulfite conversion, PCR and sequencing. Continue reading

Another Step Closer to Understanding Epigenetic Gene Regulation

Chromatin fiberBack when I was a graduate student (more than a few years ago), I remember hearing another student joke that if a member of his thesis committee asked him to explain an unexpected or unusual result, he was going to “blame” epigenetics. At that time, the study of epigenetic gene regulation was in its infancy, and scientists had much to learn about this mysterious regulatory process. Fast forward to today, and you’ll find that scientists know a lot more about basic epigenetic mechanisms, although there is still plenty to learn as scientists discover that the topic is much more complicated than initially thought, as is often the case in science. A recent EMBO Journal article is contributing to our knowledge by shedding light on the role of the TET family of DNA-modifying enzymes in epigenetics (1).

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