Research Article

Impact of cytosine methylation on DNA binding specificities of human transcription factors

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Science  05 May 2017:
Vol. 356, Issue 6337, eaaj2239
DOI: 10.1126/science.aaj2239

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Positives and negatives of methylated CpG

When the DNA bases cytosine and guanine are next to each other, a methyl group is generally added to the pyrimidine, generating a mCpG dinucleotide. This modification alters DNA structure but can also affect function by inhibiting transcription factor (TF) binding. Yin et al. systematically analyzed the effect of CpG methylation on the binding of 542 human TFs (see the Perspective by Hughes and Lambert). In addition to inhibiting binding of some TFs, they found that mCpGs can promote binding of others, particularly TFs involved in development, such as homeodomain proteins.

Science, this issue p. eaaj2239; see also p. 489

Structured Abstract


Nearly all cells in the human body share the same primary genome sequence consisting of four nucleotide bases. One of the bases, cytosine, is commonly modified by methylation of its 5 position in CpG dinucleotides (mCpG). Most CpG dinucleotides in the human genome are methylated, but the level of CpG methylation varies with genetic location (promoter versus gene body), whether genes are active versus silenced, and cell type. Research has shown that the maintenance of a particular cellular state after cell division is dependent on faithful transmission of methylated CpGs, as well as inheritance of the mother cells’ repertoire of transcription factors by the daughter cells. These two mechanisms of epigenetic inheritance are linked to each other; the binding of transcription factors can be affected by cytosine methylation, and cytosine methylation can, in turn, be added or removed by proteins that associate with transcription factors.


The genetic and epigenetic language, which imparts when and where genes are expressed, is understood at a conceptual level. However, a more detailed understanding is needed of the genomic regulatory mechanism by which methylated cytosines affect transcription factor binding. Because cytosine methylation changes DNA structure, it has the potential to affect binding of all transcription factors. However, a systematic analysis of binding of a large collection of transcription factors to all possible DNA sequences has not previously been conducted.


To globally characterize the effect of cytosine methylation on transcription factor binding, we systematically analyzed binding specificities of full-length transcription factors and extended DNA binding domains to unmethylated and CpG-methylated DNA by using methylation-sensitive SELEX (systematic evolution of ligands by exponential enrichment). We evaluated binding of 542 transcription factors and identified a large number of previously uncharacterized transcription factor recognition motifs. Binding of most major classes of transcription factors, including bHLH, bZIP, and ETS, was inhibited by mCpG. In contrast, transcription factors such as homeodomain, POU, and NFAT proteins preferred to bind methylated DNA. This class of binding was enriched in factors with central roles in embryonic and organismal development.

The observed binding preferences were validated using several orthogonal methods, including bisulfite-SELEX and protein-binding microarrays. In addition, the preference of the pluripotency factor OCT4 to bind to a mCpG-containing motif was confirmed by chromatin immunoprecipitation analysis in mouse embryonic stem cells with low or high levels of CpG methylation (due to deficiency in all enzymes that methylate cytosines or contribute to their removal, respectively). Crystal structure analysis of the homeodomain proteins HOXB13, CDX1, CDX2, and LHX4 revealed three key residues that contribute to the preference of this developmentally important family of transcription factors for mCpG. The preference for binding to mCpG was due to direct hydrophobic interactions with the 5-methyl group of methylcytosine. In contrast, inhibition of binding of other transcription factors to methylated sequences was found to be caused by steric hindrance.


Our work constitutes a global analysis of the effect of cytosine methylation on DNA binding specificities of human transcription factors. CpG methylation can influence binding of most transcription factors to DNA—in some cases negatively and in others positively. Our finding that many developmentally important transcription factors prefer to bind to mCpG sites can inform future analyses of the role of DNA methylation on cell differentiation, chromatin reprogramming, and transcriptional regulation.

Systematic analysis of the impact of CpG methylation on transcription factor binding.

The bottom left panel shows the fraction of transcription factors that prefer methylated (orange) or unmethylated (teal) CpG sites, are affected in multiple ways (yellow), are not affected (green), or do not have a CpG in their motifs (gray), as determined by methylation-sensitive SELEX (top left). The structure and logos on the right highlight how HOXB13 recognizes mCpG (blue shading indicates a CpG affected by methylation).


The majority of CpG dinucleotides in the human genome are methylated at cytosine bases. However, active gene regulatory elements are generally hypomethylated relative to their flanking regions, and the binding of some transcription factors (TFs) is diminished by methylation of their target sequences. By analysis of 542 human TFs with methylation-sensitive SELEX (systematic evolution of ligands by exponential enrichment), we found that there are also many TFs that prefer CpG-methylated sequences. Most of these are in the extended homeodomain family. Structural analysis showed that homeodomain specificity for methylcytosine depends on direct hydrophobic interactions with the methylcytosine 5-methyl group. This study provides a systematic examination of the effect of an epigenetic DNA modification on human TF binding specificity and reveals that many developmentally important proteins display preference for mCpG-containing sequences.

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