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Studying epigenetics in plants

Epigenetic modifications have emerged as powerful regulators of biological processes. Using the plant Arabidopsis as a model organism, European researchers shed light on this complex process.
Studying epigenetics in plants
DNA methylation is an epigenetic mechanism mediated by a family of methyltransferase enzymes that covalently add a methyl group to the cytosine DNA nucleotide. It controls major biological processes, such as gene activity during development, cell differentiation and genomic stability under stress.

Due to the similarity of the implicated enzymes among plants and animals, DNA methylation is a well-conserved process. There are two principal types of DNA methylation, namely de novo methylation that targets previously unmethylated DNA and maintenance methylation, which copies pre-existing methylation marks during replication.

The model plant Arabidopsis constitutes a powerful test system for plant and mammalian methylation. Moreover, its methylation mutants are viable and fertile. With this in mind, scientists on the EU-funded project CAPMEM (Comparative analysis of plant and mammalian DNA methylation functions in epigenetic Arabidopsis mutants) set out to evaluate the extent of conservation and diversification of the plant and mammalian enzymes that control maintenance DNA methylation. They also wished to evaluate how methylation patterns affect plant adaptation to environmental challenges.

Researchers stably expressed the mammalian DNMT1/LSH transgene into Arabidopsis mutants. However, the mammalian homologue could not silence selected target loci that are epigenetically regulated, suggesting that full re-methylation did not occur. When scientists subjected the different DNA methylation plant mutants to stress, they observed that DNA methylation affected the ability of plant roots to optimise their growth direction.

Overall, Arabidopsis proved a valuable research tool for the functional characterisation of DNA methylation regulators and provided important information on the evolution of DNA methylation. Maintenance methylation functions can increase genomic flexibility and enable stress-adaptive evolution. Apart from fundamental knowledge, the results of CAPMEM could help resolve practical issues related to agriculture as well as human biology.

Related information


Epigenetics, plants, Arabidopsis, DNA methylation, stress, DNMT1, evolution
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