Histone demethylase KDM6A directly senses oxygen to control chromatin and cell fate

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Science  15 Mar 2019:
Vol. 363, Issue 6432, pp. 1217-1222
DOI: 10.1126/science.aaw1026

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Oxygen sensing revisited

The cellular response to hypoxia (oxygen deficiency) is a contributing factor in many human diseases. Previous studies examining the way in which hypoxia alters gene expression have focused on oxygen-sensing enzymes that regulate the activity of a transcription factor called hypoxia-inducible factor (see the Perspective by Gallipoli and Huntly). Chakraborty et al. and Batie et al. now show that hypoxia can also affect gene expression through direct effects on chromatin regulators. Certain histone demethylases, such as KDM6A and KDM5A, were found to be direct sensors of oxygen. In cell-culture models, hypoxia diminished the activity of these enzymes and caused changes in the expression of genes that govern cell fate.

Science, this issue p. 1217, p. 1222; see also p. 1148


Oxygen sensing is central to metazoan biology and has implications for human disease. Mammalian cells express multiple oxygen-dependent enzymes called 2-oxoglutarate (OG)-dependent dioxygenases (2-OGDDs), but they vary in their oxygen affinities and hence their ability to sense oxygen. The 2-OGDD histone demethylases control histone methylation. Hypoxia increases histone methylation, but whether this reflects direct effects on histone demethylases or indirect effects caused by the hypoxic induction of the HIF (hypoxia-inducible factor) transcription factor or the 2-OG antagonist 2-hydroxyglutarate (2-HG) is unclear. Here, we report that hypoxia promotes histone methylation in a HIF- and 2-HG–independent manner. We found that the H3K27 histone demethylase KDM6A/UTX, but not its paralog KDM6B, is oxygen sensitive. KDM6A loss, like hypoxia, prevented H3K27 demethylation and blocked cellular differentiation. Restoring H3K27 methylation homeostasis in hypoxic cells reversed these effects. Thus, oxygen directly affects chromatin regulators to control cell fate.

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