Research Article

Epigenetic programming of monocyte-to-macrophage differentiation and trained innate immunity

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Science  26 Sep 2014:
Vol. 345, Issue 6204, 1251086
DOI: 10.1126/science.1251086

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Structured Abstract


Monocytes circulate in the bloodstream for up to 3 to 5 days. Concomitantly, immunological imprinting of either tolerance (immunosuppression) or trained immunity (innate immune memory) determines the functional fate of monocytes and monocyte-derived macrophages, as observed after infection or vaccination.


The epigenome, DNase I accessibility, and transcriptome were characterized in purified human circulating monocytes, in vitro differentiated naïve, tolerized (immunosuppression), and trained macrophages (innate immune memory). This allowed the identification of pathways functionally implicated in innate immune memory. This epigenetic signature of human monocyte-to-macrophage differentiation and monocyte training generates hypotheses to understand and manipulate medically relevant immune conditions.


Purified circulating monocytes from healthy volunteers were differentiated under the homeostatic macrophage colony-stimulating factor concentrations present in human serum. During the first 24 hours, trained immunity was induced by β-glucan (BG) priming, and postsepsis immunoparalysis was mimicked by exposure to lipopolysaccharide (LPS), generating endotoxin-induced tolerance. Epigenomic profiling of the histone marks H3K4me1, H3K4me3, and H3K27ac, DNase I accessibility, and RNA sequencing were performed at both the start of the experiment (ex vivo monocytes) and at the end of the 6 days of in vitro culture (macrophages).


Compared with monocytes (Mo), naïve macrophages (Mf ) display a remodeled metabolic enzyme repertoire and attenuated innate inflammatory pathways, most likely necessary to generate functional tissue macrophages. Epigenetic profiling uncovered about 8000 dynamic regions associated with about 11,000 DNase I hypersensitive sites. Changes in histone acetylation identified most dynamic events. Furthermore, these regions of differential histone marks displayed some degree of DNase I accessibility that was already present in monocytes. H3K4me1 mark increased in parallel with de novo H3K27ac deposition at distal regulatory regions; H3K4me1 mark remained even after the loss of H3K27ac, marking decommissioned regulatory elements.

β-glucan priming specifically induced about 3000 distal regulatory elements, whereas LPS tolerization induced H3K27ac at about 500 distal regulatory regions. At the transcriptional level, we identified coregulated gene modules during monocyte-to-macrophage differentiation, as well as discordant modules between trained and tolerized cells. These indicate that training likely involves an increased expression of modules expressed in naïve macrophages, including genes that code for metabolic enzymes. On the other hand, endotoxin tolerance involves gene modules that are more active in monocytes than in naïve macrophages. About 12% of known human transcription factors display variation in expression during macrophage differentiation, training, and tolerance. We also observed transcription factor motifs in DNase I hypersensitive sites at condition-specific dynamic epigenomic regions, implying that specific transcription factors are required for trained and tolerized macrophage epigenetic and transcriptional programs. Finally, our analyses and functional validation indicate that the inhibition of cyclic adenosine monophosphate generation blocked trained immunity in vitro and during an in vivo model of lethal Candida albicans infection, abolishing the protective effects of trained immunity.


We documented the importance of epigenetic regulation of the immunological pathways underlying monocyte-to-macrophage differentiation and trained immunity. These dynamic epigenetic elements may inform on potential pharmacological targets that modulate innate immunity. Altogether, we uncovered the epigenetic and transcriptional programs of monocyte differentiation to macrophages that distinguish tolerant and trained macrophage phenotypes, providing a resource to further understand and manipulate immune-mediated responses.

A BLUEPRINT of immune cell development

To determine the epigenetic mechanisms that direct blood cells to develop into the many components of our immune system, the BLUEPRINT consortium examined the regulation of DNA and RNA transcription to dissect the molecular traits that govern blood cell differentiation. By inducing immune responses, Saeed et al. document the epigenetic changes in the genome that underlie immune cell differentiation. Cheng et al. demonstrate that trained monocytes are highly dependent on the breakdown of sugars in the presence of oxygen, which allows cells to produce the energy needed to mount an immune response. Chen et al. examine RNA transcripts and find that specific cell lineages use RNA transcripts of different length and composition (isoforms) to form proteins. Together, the studies reveal how epigenetic effects can drive the development of blood cells involved in the immune system.

Science, this issue 10.1126/science.1251086, 10.1126/science.1250684, 10.1126/science.1251033


Monocyte differentiation into macrophages represents a cornerstone process for host defense. Concomitantly, immunological imprinting of either tolerance or trained immunity determines the functional fate of macrophages and susceptibility to secondary infections. We characterized the transcriptomes and epigenomes in four primary cell types: monocytes and in vitro–differentiated naïve, tolerized, and trained macrophages. Inflammatory and metabolic pathways were modulated in macrophages, including decreased inflammasome activation, and we identified pathways functionally implicated in trained immunity. β-glucan training elicits an exclusive epigenetic signature, revealing a complex network of enhancers and promoters. Analysis of transcription factor motifs in deoxyribonuclease I hypersensitive sites at cell-type–specific epigenetic loci unveiled differentiation and treatment-specific repertoires. Altogether, we provide a resource to understand the epigenetic changes that underlie innate immunity in humans.

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