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Research provides insights how genomes are reprogrammed at the start of life

Visit Babraham Institute website

15 March 2011

Collaboration between an international consortium of scientists from the Babraham Institute (an institute of BBSRC) and Universities in Germany and Japan has led to a breakthrough in understanding how the genomes of mammalian embryos are reprogrammed as new life begins. The mechanisms behind this complex process have remained enigmatic for the last 10 years. This research, however, published today in Nature Communications sheds new light on how the egg controls this process and reveals for the first time that a new type of epigenetic modification (5-hydroxymethylcytosine) appears to be vital during the earliest stages of embryo reprogramming.

In addition to advancing our knowledge of reprogramming during early mammalian development, these findings may also bring insight to understanding how epigenetic changes taking place during ageing can cause disease, since many adult conditions like heart disease, diabetes, obesity, cancer and autoimmune disorders may be associated with failure of epigenetic regulation.

Professor Wolf Reik who led the study at the Babraham Institute, said, "This work provides exciting new insights into how epigenomes are reprogrammed in germ cells and early embryos at the beginning of life. Elucidating these mechanisms may help us to devise better strategies for making stem cell therapies a reality. Also, erasing old epigenetic marks that are inherited from parents and grandparents may be important for healthy ageing and for preventing common diseases such as diabetes or heart disease."

Epigenetic modification of DNA, for example by methylation, enables genes to be switched on or off at different times and places. The reprogramming or 'erasure' of such epigenetic tags after fertilisation is essential if cells of a developing embryo are to have the potential to become any type of tissue - a characteristic known as totipotency.

Jörn Walter, Professor of Epigenetics at Saarland University in Germany who led the German team said, "In humans the DNA code is faithfully transmitted from cell to cell and over generations. However, in each individual the chromosomes undergo dramatic and essential epigenomic changes during development. These changes do not alter the genes but affect their interpretation in all cells of a human body. Our work helps to understand the molecular signals and switches that are important in epigenetic programming and ensuring correct development."

Shortly after fertilisation, the egg starts the unpacking and epigenetic decoding of the sperm's chromosomes. This maternal "dominance" over the male-derived chromosomes was discovered ten years ago by the authors. A major early event governing the reprogramming is the loss of an epigenetic chemical tag called 5-methylcytosine (5mC). However, there is a striking difference between the demethylation of maternally and paternally-derived chromosomes in the fertilised eggs; the maternal genome appears to protect itself and resist demethylation.

The team discovered that the appearance of 5-hydroxymethylcytosine (5hmC) has a critical role in the process and is associated with structural reorganisation in the nucleus after fertilisation. Within the first hours of development, a strong accumulation of the novel modification 5hmC was seen, almost exclusively on male chromosomes. The egg produces an enzyme called Tet3, which drives the conversion of 5mC into 5hmC. The authors showed that removing this enzyme in the fertilised egg using RNAi methods dramatically decreased the conversion of 5mC into 5hmC. These findings also link the loss of 5mC, first observed by the authors 10 years ago, to its conversion to 5hmC. The authors also discovered a 'protection factor', a protein called PGC7, which guards maternal chromosomes against the modification, while allowing "decoding" of the paternal DNA-methylation tags by modification into 5hmC. Without PGC7, the methyl groups on maternal chromosomes become accessible for hydroxylation.

While the precise biological role of the large-scale conversion of 5mC into 5hmC remains unclear, the insights are likely to have wide implications for our general understanding of epigenetic reprogramming. It is known that external factors in the environment, or for example in our diet, may have consequences later in life or on future generations. Epigenetics is now established as the 'integrator' between the environment and the genome so understanding how epigenomes are modified is key to understanding the mechanisms underpinning lifelong health.

The Babraham Institute undertakes world-leading life sciences research to generate new knowledge of biological mechanisms underpinning ageing, development and the maintenance of health. The work was supported by the BBSRC, the MRC, University of Cambridge, a grant from Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, an EMBO long-term Fellowship and by the EPIGENOME Network of Excellence.

One of the Babraham authors, Dr Joana Marques, was recently awarded one of the L'Oréal 'Medals of Honor' for Women in Science. This award aims to improve the position of women in science by recognising outstanding women researchers who have contributed to scientific progress.


Notes to editors

Publication details: 5-hydroxymethylcytosine in the mammalian zygote is linked with epigenetic reprogramming
Mark Wossidlo, Toshinobu Nakamura, Konstantin Lepikhov, C. Joana Marques, Valeri Zakhartchenko, Michele Boiani, Julia Arand, Toru Nakano, Wolf Reik and Jörn Walter. DOI: 10.1038/ncomms1240

About the Babraham Institute

The Babraham Institute is an institute supported by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) near Cambridge, undertaking international quality research to generate new knowledge of biological mechanisms underpinning ageing, development and the maintenance of health. The Institute's research is focused on understanding the biological events that underlie the normal functions of cells and the implication of failure or abnormalities in these processes. Research focuses on signalling and genome regulation, particularly the interplay between the two and how epigenetic signals can influence important physiological adaptations during the lifespan of an organism. By determining how the body reacts to dietary and environmental stimuli and manages microbial and viral interactions, we aim to improve wellbeing and healthier ageing.


BBSRC is the UK funding agency for research in the life sciences. Sponsored by Government, BBSRC annually invests around £470M in a wide range of research that makes a significant contribution to the quality of life in the UK and beyond and supports a number of important industrial stakeholders, including the agriculture, food, chemical, healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors.

BBSRC provides institute strategic research grants to the following:

  • The Babraham Institute
  • Institute for Animal Health
  • Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences (Aberystwyth University)
  • Institute of Food Research
  • John Innes Centre
  • The Genome Analysis Centre
  • The Roslin Institute (University of Edinburgh)
  • Rothamsted Research

The Institutes conduct long-term, mission-oriented research using specialist facilities. They have strong interactions with industry, Government departments and other end-users of their research.

External contact

Dr Claire Cockcroft, Head of External Relations, Babraham Institute

tel: 01223 496260
mob: 07786 335978

Professor Wolf Reik, Babraham Institute

Professor Jörn Walter, Department of Genetics/Epigenetics, Saarland University, Germany