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1.  Advances in the identification and analysis of allele-specific expression 
Genome Medicine  2009;1(5):56.
Allele-specific expression (ASE) is essential for normal development and many cellular processes but, if impaired, can result in disease. ASE is a feature of organisms with genomes consisting of more than one set of homologous chromosomes. The higher the number of chromosome sets (ploidy) per cell, the higher the potential complexity of ASE. Humans, for instance, are diploid (except germ cells, which are haploid), resulting in multiple possible expression states in time and space for each set of alleles. ASE is invoked and modulated by both genetic and epigenetic changes, affecting the underlying DNA sequence or chromatin of each allele, respectively. Although numerous methods have been developed to assay ASE, they usually require RNA to be available and are dependent upon genetic polymorphisms (such as single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs)) to differentiate between allelic transcripts. The rapid convergence to second-generation sequencing as the method of choice to examine genomic, epigenomic and transcriptomic data enables an integrated and more general approach to define and predict ASE, independent of SNPs. This 'Omni-Seq' approach has the potential to advance our understanding of the biology and pathophysiology of ASE-mediated processes by elucidating subtle combinatorial effects, leading to the accurate delineation of sub-phenotypes with consequential benefit for improved insight into disease etiology.
PMCID: PMC2689448  PMID: 19490587
2.  An Epigenetic Signature in Peripheral Blood Predicts Active Ovarian Cancer 
PLoS ONE  2009;4(12):e8274.
Recent studies have shown that DNA methylation (DNAm) markers in peripheral blood may hold promise as diagnostic or early detection/risk markers for epithelial cancers. However, to date no study has evaluated the diagnostic and predictive potential of such markers in a large case control cohort and on a genome-wide basis.
Principal Findings
By performing genome-wide DNAm profiling of a large ovarian cancer case control cohort, we here demonstrate that active ovarian cancer has a significant impact on the DNAm pattern in peripheral blood. Specifically, by measuring the methylation levels of over 27,000 CpGs in blood cells from 148 healthy individuals and 113 age-matched pre-treatment ovarian cancer cases, we derive a DNAm signature that can predict the presence of active ovarian cancer in blind test sets with an AUC of 0.8 (95% CI (0.74–0.87)). We further validate our findings in another independent set of 122 post-treatment cases (AUC = 0.76 (0.72–0.81)). In addition, we provide evidence for a significant number of candidate risk or early detection markers for ovarian cancer. Furthermore, by comparing the pattern of methylation with gene expression data from major blood cell types, we here demonstrate that age and cancer elicit common changes in the composition of peripheral blood, with a myeloid skewing that increases with age and which is further aggravated in the presence of ovarian cancer. Finally, we show that most cancer and age associated methylation variability is found at CpGs located outside of CpG islands.
Our results underscore the potential of DNAm profiling in peripheral blood as a tool for detection or risk-prediction of epithelial cancers, and warrants further in-depth and higher CpG coverage studies to further elucidate this role.
PMCID: PMC2793425  PMID: 20019873
3.  A Novel System of Polymorphic and Diverse NK Cell Receptors in Primates 
PLoS Genetics  2009;5(10):e1000688.
There are two main classes of natural killer (NK) cell receptors in mammals, the killer cell immunoglobulin-like receptors (KIR) and the structurally unrelated killer cell lectin-like receptors (KLR). While KIR represent the most diverse group of NK receptors in all primates studied to date, including humans, apes, and Old and New World monkeys, KLR represent the functional equivalent in rodents. Here, we report a first digression from this rule in lemurs, where the KLR (CD94/NKG2) rather than KIR constitute the most diverse group of NK cell receptors. We demonstrate that natural selection contributed to such diversification in lemurs and particularly targeted KLR residues interacting with the peptide presented by MHC class I ligands. We further show that lemurs lack a strict ortholog or functional equivalent of MHC-E, the ligands of non-polymorphic KLR in “higher” primates. Our data support the existence of a hitherto unknown system of polymorphic and diverse NK cell receptors in primates and of combinatorial diversity as a novel mechanism to increase NK cell receptor repertoire.
Author Summary
Most receptors of natural killer (NK) cells interact with highly polymorphic major histocompatibility complex (MHC) class I molecules and thereby regulate the activity of NK cells against infected or malignant target cells. Whereas humans, apes, and Old and New World monkeys use the family of killer cell immunoglobulin-like receptors (KIR) as highly diverse NK cell receptors, this function is performed in rodents by the diverse family of lectin-like receptors Ly49. When did this functional separation occur in evolution? We followed this by investigating lemurs, primates that are distantly related to humans. We show here that lemurs employ the CD94/NKG2 family as their highly diversified NK cell receptors. The CD94/NKG2 receptors also belong to the lectin-like receptor family, but are rather conserved in “higher” primates and rodents. We could further demonstrate that lemurs have a single Ly49 gene like other primates but lack functional KIR genes of the KIR3DL lineage and show major deviations in their MHC class I genomic organisation. Thus, lemurs have evolved a “third way” of polymorphic and diverse NK cell receptors. In addition, the multiplied lemur CD94/NKG2 receptors can be freely combined, thereby forming diverse receptors. This is, therefore, the first description of some combinatorial diversity of NK cell receptors.
PMCID: PMC2757895  PMID: 19834558
4.  MHC-linked and un-linked class I genes in the wallaby 
BMC Genomics  2009;10:310.
MHC class I antigens are encoded by a rapidly evolving gene family comprising classical and non-classical genes that are found in all vertebrates and involved in diverse immune functions. However, there is a fundamental difference between the organization of class I genes in mammals and non-mammals. Non-mammals have a single classical gene responsible for antigen presentation, which is linked to the antigen processing genes, including TAP. This organization allows co-evolution of advantageous class Ia/TAP haplotypes. In contrast, mammals have multiple classical genes within the MHC, which are separated from the antigen processing genes by class III genes. It has been hypothesized that separation of classical class I genes from antigen processing genes in mammals allowed them to duplicate. We investigated this hypothesis by characterizing the class I genes of the tammar wallaby, a model marsupial that has a novel MHC organization, with class I genes located within the MHC and 10 other chromosomal locations.
Sequence analysis of 14 BACs containing 15 class I genes revealed that nine class I genes, including one to three classical class I, are not linked to the MHC but are scattered throughout the genome. Kangaroo Endogenous Retroviruses (KERVs) were identified flanking the MHC un-linked class I. The wallaby MHC contains four non-classical class I, interspersed with antigen processing genes. Clear orthologs of non-classical class I are conserved in distant marsupial lineages.
We demonstrate that classical class I genes are not linked to antigen processing genes in the wallaby and provide evidence that retroviral elements were involved in their movement. The presence of retroviral elements most likely facilitated the formation of recombination hotspots and subsequent diversification of class I genes. The classical class I have moved away from antigen processing genes in eutherian mammals and the wallaby independently, but both lineages appear to have benefited from this loss of linkage by increasing the number of classical genes, perhaps enabling response to a wider range of pathogens. The discovery of non-classical orthologs between distantly related marsupial species is unusual for the rapidly evolving class I genes and may indicate an important marsupial specific function.
PMCID: PMC2719672  PMID: 19602235
5.  Placenta-specific Methylation of the Vitamin D 24-Hydroxylase Gene 
The Journal of Biological Chemistry  2009;284(22):14838-14848.
Plasma concentrations of biologically active vitamin D (1,25-(OH)2D) are tightly controlled via feedback regulation of renal 1α-hydroxylase (CYP27B1; positive) and 24-hydroxylase (CYP24A1; catabolic) enzymes. In pregnancy, this regulation is uncoupled, and 1,25-(OH)2D levels are significantly elevated, suggesting a role in pregnancy progression. Epigenetic regulation of CYP27B1 and CYP24A1 has previously been described in cell and animal models, and despite emerging evidence for a critical role of epigenetics in placentation generally, little is known about the regulation of enzymes modulating vitamin D homeostasis at the fetomaternal interface. In this study, we investigated the methylation status of genes regulating vitamin D bioavailability and activity in the placenta. No methylation of the VDR (vitamin D receptor) and CYP27B1 genes was found in any placental tissues. In contrast, the CYP24A1 gene is methylated in human placenta, purified cytotrophoblasts, and primary and cultured chorionic villus sampling tissue. No methylation was detected in any somatic human tissue tested. Methylation was also evident in marmoset and mouse placental tissue. All three genes were hypermethylated in choriocarcinoma cell lines, highlighting the role of vitamin D deregulation in this cancer. Gene expression analysis confirmed a reduced capacity for CYP24A1 induction with promoter methylation in primary cells and in vitro reporter analysis demonstrated that promoter methylation directly down-regulates basal promoter activity and abolishes vitamin D-mediated feedback activation. This study strongly suggests that epigenetic decoupling of vitamin D feedback catabolism plays an important role in maximizing active vitamin D bioavailability at the fetomaternal interface.
PMCID: PMC2685665  PMID: 19237542
6.  A Common Variant Associated with Dyslexia Reduces Expression of the KIAA0319 Gene 
PLoS Genetics  2009;5(3):e1000436.
Numerous genetic association studies have implicated the KIAA0319 gene on human chromosome 6p22 in dyslexia susceptibility. The causative variant(s) remains unknown but may modulate gene expression, given that (1) a dyslexia-associated haplotype has been implicated in the reduced expression of KIAA0319, and (2) the strongest association has been found for the region spanning exon 1 of KIAA0319. Here, we test the hypothesis that variant(s) responsible for reduced KIAA0319 expression resides on the risk haplotype close to the gene's transcription start site. We identified seven single-nucleotide polymorphisms on the risk haplotype immediately upstream of KIAA0319 and determined that three of these are strongly associated with multiple reading-related traits. Using luciferase-expressing constructs containing the KIAA0319 upstream region, we characterized the minimal promoter and additional putative transcriptional regulator regions. This revealed that the minor allele of rs9461045, which shows the strongest association with dyslexia in our sample (max p-value = 0.0001), confers reduced luciferase expression in both neuronal and non-neuronal cell lines. Additionally, we found that the presence of this rs9461045 dyslexia-associated allele creates a nuclear protein-binding site, likely for the transcriptional silencer OCT-1. Knocking down OCT-1 expression in the neuronal cell line SHSY5Y using an siRNA restores KIAA0319 expression from the risk haplotype to nearly that seen from the non-risk haplotype. Our study thus pinpoints a common variant as altering the function of a dyslexia candidate gene and provides an illustrative example of the strategic approach needed to dissect the molecular basis of complex genetic traits.
Author Summary
Dyslexia, or reading disability, is a common disorder caused by both genetic and environmental factors. Genetic studies have implicated a number of genes as candidates for playing a role in dyslexia. We functionally characterized one such gene (KIAA0319) to identify variant(s) that might affect gene expression and contribute to the disorder. We discovered a variant residing outside of the protein-coding region of KIAA0319 that reduces expression of the gene. This variant creates a binding site for the transcription factor OCT-1. Previous studies have shown that OCT-1 binding to a specific DNA sequence upstream of a gene can reduce the expression of that gene. In this case, reduced KIAA0319 expression could lead to improper development of regions of the brain involved in reading ability. This is the first study to identify a functional variant implicated in dyslexia. More broadly, our study illustrates the steps that can be utilized for identifying mutations causing other complex genetic disorders.
PMCID: PMC2653637  PMID: 19325871

Results 1-6 (6)