Epigenetic regulation of motor neuron cell death through DNA methylation

Barry A. Chestnut, Qing Chang, Ann Price, Catherine Lesuisse, Margaret Wong, Lee J. Martin

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

234 Scopus citations


DNA methylation is an epigenetic mechanism for gene silencing engaged by DNA methyltransferase (Dnmt)-catalyzed methyl group transfer to cytosine residues in gene-regulatory regions. It is unknown whether aberrantDNAmethylation can cause neurodegeneration. We tested the hypothesis that Dnmts can mediate neuronal cell death. Enforced expression of Dnmt3a induced degeneration of cultured NSC34 cells. During apoptosis of NSC34 cells induced by camptothecin, levels of Dnmt1 and Dnmt3a increased fivefold and twofold, respectively, and 5-methylcytosine accumulated in nuclei. Truncation mutation of the Dnmt3a catalytic domain and Dnmt3a RNAi blocked apoptosis of cultured neurons. Inhibition of Dnmt catalytic activity with RG108 and procainamide protected cultured neurons from excessive DNA methylation and apoptosis. In vivo, Dnmt1 and Dnmt3a are expressed differentially during mouse brain and spinal cord maturation and in adulthood when Dnmt3a is abundant in synapses and mitochondria. Dnmt1 and Dnmt3a are expressed in motor neurons of adult mouse spinal cord, and, during their apoptosis induced by sciatic nerve avulsion, nuclear and cytoplasmic 5-methylcytosine immunoreactivity, Dnmt3a protein levels and Dnmt enzyme activity increased preapoptotically. Inhibition of Dnmts with RG108 blocked completely the increase in 5-methycytosine and the apoptosis of motor neurons in mice. In human amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), motor neurons showed changes in Dnmt1, Dnmt3a, and 5-methylcytosine similar to experimental models. Thus, motor neurons can engage epigenetic mechanisms to drive apoptosis, involving Dnmt upregulation and increased DNA methylation. These cellular mechanisms could be relevant to human ALS pathobiology and disease treatment.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)16619-16636
Number of pages18
JournalJournal of Neuroscience
Issue number46
StatePublished - Nov 16 2011

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience(all)


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