Histone H3 methylation at lysine 9 (H3K9) is a conserved epigenetic signal, mediating heterochromatin formation by trimethylation, and transcriptional silencing by dimethylation. Defective GLP (Ehmt1) and G9a (Ehmt2) histone lysine methyltransferases, involved in mono and dimethylation of H3K9, confer autistic phenotypes and behavioral abnormalities in animal models. Moreover, EHMT1 loss of function results in Kleefstra syndrome, characterized by severe intellectual disability, developmental delays and psychiatric disorders. We examined the possible role of histone methyltransferases in the etiology of autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and suggest that rare functional variants in these genes that regulate H3K9 methylation may be associated with ASD.
Since G9a-GLP-Wiz forms a heteromeric methyltransferase complex, all the protein-coding regions and exon/intron boundaries of EHMT1, EHMT2 and WIZ were sequenced in Japanese ASD subjects. The detected variants were prioritized based on novelty and functionality. The expression levels of these genes were tested in blood cells and postmortem brain samples from ASD and control subjects. Expression of EHMT1 and EHMT2 isoforms were determined by digital PCR.
We identified six nonsynonymous variants: three in EHMT1, two in EHMT2 and one in WIZ. Two variants, the EHMT1 ankyrin repeat domain (Lys968Arg) and EHMT2 SET domain (Thr961Ile) variants were present exclusively in cases, but showed no statistically significant association with ASD. The EHMT2 transcript expression was significantly elevated in the peripheral blood cells of ASD when compared with control samples; but not for EHMT1 and WIZ. Gene expression levels of EHMT1, EHMT2 and WIZ in Brodmann area (BA) 9, BA21, BA40 and the dorsal raphe nucleus (DoRN) regions from postmortem brain samples showed no significant changes between ASD and control subjects. Nor did expression levels of EHMT1 and EHMT2 isoforms in the prefrontal cortex differ significantly between ASD and control groups.
We identified two novel rare missense variants in the EHMT1 and EHMT2 genes of ASD patients. We surmise that these variants alone may not be sufficient to exert a significant effect on ASD pathogenesis. The elevated expression of EHMT2 in the peripheral blood cells may support the notion of a restrictive chromatin state in ASD, similar to schizophrenia.
Electronic supplementary material
The online version of this article (doi:10.1186/2040-2392-5-49) contains supplementary material, which is available to authorized users.