"The placenta is the interface between mother and fetus," said LaSalle, who is a researcher affiliated with the UC Davis MIND Institute. "It's a time capsule from when a lot of important methylation events occurred."
In addition, placental tissue was interesting to study because it has a number of invasive characteristics often associated with cancer. In fact, a number of cancers, such as breast and colon, have widespread PMDs. LaSalle notes that anti-cancer epigenetic therapies that adjust methylation could be refined based on this improved understanding of PMDs.
This work could also enhance our ability to detect genetic defects. Methylation, and other epigenetic data, provides information that cannot be found in the genome alone. For example, the vast majority of cells in the body contain identical genetic code. However, the added information provided by methylation allows scientists to determine where specific DNA came from.
"Methylation patterns are like fingerprints, showing which tissue that DNA is derived from," LaSalle said. "You can't get that information from just the DNA sequence. As a result, methylation studies could be a very rich source for biomarkers."
In the study, PMDs encompassed 37 percent of the placental genome, including 3,815 genes, around 17 percent of all genes. When found in low-methylation regions, these genes were less likely to be transcribed into proteins. Researchers also found that PMDs also contain more highly methylated CpG islands (genomic areas with large numbers of cytosine-guanine pairs), which are often associated with gene transcriptional silencing of promoters.
Because the placental PMDs contained many genes associated with neuronal development, and specifically autism, LaSalle notes that future research could investigate how epigenetics impacts autism genes
|Contact: Phyllis Brown|
University of California - Davis Health System