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Sustained induction of epithelial to mesenchymal transition activates DNA methylation of genes silenced in basal-like breast cancers


The active acquisition of epigenetic changes is a poorly understood but important process in development, differentiation, and disease. Our work has shown that repression of the p16/pRb pathway in human epithelial cells, a condition common to stem cells and many tumor cells, induces dynamic epigenetic remodeling resulting in the targeted methylation of a selected group of CpG islands. We hypothesized that cells in this epigenetically plastic state could be programmed by the microenvironment to acquire epigenetic changes associated with tumorigenesis. Here, we describe an in vitro model system where epigenetically plastic cells were placed in an environment that induced epithelial to mesenchymal transition (EMT) and led to a program of acquired de novo DNA methylation at targeted sites. In this model, we found that repression of E-cadherin transcription preceded the subsequent acquisition of methylated CpG sites. Furthermore, the induction of EMT was accompanied by de novo methylation of several other gene promoters, including those of the estrogen receptor and Twist. These data demonstrate that signals from the microenvironment can induce phenotypic and gene expression changes associated with targeted de novo epigenetic alterations important in tumor progression, and that these alterations occur through a deterministic, rather than stochastic, mechanism. Given the dynamic epigenetic reprogramming that occurs in these cells, DNA methylation profiles observed in human tumors may reflect the history of environmental exposures during the genesis of a tumor.

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