Notes on the role of dynamic DNA methylation in mammalian development

Timothy H. Bestor, John R. Edwards, Mathieu Boulard

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129 Scopus citations


It has been nearly 40 y since it was suggested that genomic methylation patterns could be transmitted via maintenance methylation during S phase and might play a role in the dynamic regulation of gene expression during development [Holliday R, Pugh JE (1975) Science 187(4173):226-232; Riggs AD (1975) Cytogenet Cell Genet 14(1):9-25]. This revolutionary proposal was justified by "... our almost complete ignorance of the mechanism for the unfolding of the genetic program during development" that prevailed at the time. Many correlations between transcriptional activation and demethylation have since been reported, but causation has not been demonstrated and to date there is no reasonable proof of the existence of a complex biochemical system that activates and represses genes via reversible DNA methylation. Such a system would supplement or replace the conserved web of transcription factors that regulate cellular differentiation in organisms that have unmethylated genomes (such as Caenorhaditis elegans and the Dipteran insects) and those that methylate their genomes. DNA methylation does have essential roles in irreversible promoter silencing, as in the monoallelic expression of imprinted genes, in the silencing of transposons, and in X chromosome inactivation in female mammals. Rather than reinforcing or replacing regulatory pathways that are conserved between organisms that have either methylated or unmethylated genomes, DNA methylation endows genomes with the ability to subject specific sequences to irreversible transcriptional silencing even in the presence of all of the factors required for their expression, an ability that is generally unavailable to organisms that have unmethylated genomes.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)6796-6799
Number of pages4
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number22
StatePublished - Jun 2 2015


  • DNA methylation
  • Development
  • Differentiation


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