Wolf Reik

Research Summary

Epigenetic modifications such as DNA methylation and histone marks are often relatively stable in differentiated and in adult tissues in the body, where they help to confer a stable cell identity on tissues. The process of epigenetic reprogramming, by which many of these marks are removed from DNA, is important for the function of embryonic stem cells and in reprogramming stem cells from adult tissue cells. When this erasure goes wrong there may be adverse consequences for healthy development and ageing, which can potentially extend over more than one generation.

​Our insights into the mechanisms of epigenetic reprogramming may help with developing better strategies for stem cell therapies and to combat age related decline. We have also recently initiated work on epigenetic regulation of social behaviours in insects, where we are interested in how patterning and regulation of DNA methylation in the brain is linked with the evolution of sociality.

Latest Publications

Histone modifications form a cell-type-specific chromosomal bar code that persists through the cell cycle.
Halsall JA, Andrews S, Krueger F, Rutledge CE, Ficz G, Reik W, Turner BM

Chromatin configuration influences gene expression in eukaryotes at multiple levels, from individual nucleosomes to chromatin domains several Mb long. Post-translational modifications (PTM) of core histones seem to be involved in chromatin structural transitions, but how remains unclear. To explore this, we used ChIP-seq and two cell types, HeLa and lymphoblastoid (LCL), to define how changes in chromatin packaging through the cell cycle influence the distributions of three transcription-associated histone modifications, H3K9ac, H3K4me3 and H3K27me3. We show that chromosome regions (bands) of 10-50 Mb, detectable by immunofluorescence microscopy of metaphase (M) chromosomes, are also present in G and G. They comprise 1-5 Mb sub-bands that differ between HeLa and LCL but remain consistent through the cell cycle. The same sub-bands are defined by H3K9ac and H3K4me3, while H3K27me3 spreads more widely. We found little change between cell cycle phases, whether compared by 5 Kb rolling windows or when analysis was restricted to functional elements such as transcription start sites and topologically associating domains. Only a small number of genes showed cell-cycle related changes: at genes encoding proteins involved in mitosis, H3K9 became highly acetylated in GM, possibly because of ongoing transcription. In conclusion, modified histone isoforms H3K9ac, H3K4me3 and H3K27me3 exhibit a characteristic genomic distribution at resolutions of 1 Mb and below that differs between HeLa and lymphoblastoid cells but remains remarkably consistent through the cell cycle. We suggest that this cell-type-specific chromosomal bar-code is part of a homeostatic mechanism by which cells retain their characteristic gene expression patterns, and hence their identity, through multiple mitoses.

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Scientific reports, 11, 1, 04 Feb 2021

PMID: 33542322

Transcriptome and epigenome diversity and plasticity of muscle stem cells following transplantation.
Evano B, Gill D, Hernando-Herraez I, Comai G, Stubbs TM, Commere PH, Reik W, Tajbakhsh S

Adult skeletal muscles are maintained during homeostasis and regenerated upon injury by muscle stem cells (MuSCs). A heterogeneity in self-renewal, differentiation and regeneration properties has been reported for MuSCs based on their anatomical location. Although MuSCs derived from extraocular muscles (EOM) have a higher regenerative capacity than those derived from limb muscles, the molecular determinants that govern these differences remain undefined. Here we show that EOM and limb MuSCs have distinct DNA methylation signatures associated with enhancers of location-specific genes, and that the EOM transcriptome is reprogrammed following transplantation into a limb muscle environment. Notably, EOM MuSCs expressed host-site specific positional Hox codes after engraftment and self-renewal within the host muscle. However, about 10% of EOM-specific genes showed engraftment-resistant expression, pointing to cell-intrinsic molecular determinants of the higher engraftment potential of EOM MuSCs. Our results underscore the molecular diversity of distinct MuSC populations and molecularly define their plasticity in response to microenvironmental cues. These findings provide insights into strategies designed to improve the functional capacity of MuSCs in the context of regenerative medicine.

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PLoS genetics, 16, 10, 30 Oct 2020

PMID: 33125370

Active turnover of DNA methylation during cell fate decisions.
Parry A, Rulands S, Reik W

DNA methylation is a key layer of epigenetic regulation. The deposition of methylation marks relies on the catalytic activity of DNA methyltransferases (DNMTs), and their active removal relies on the activity of ten-eleven translocation (TET) enzymes. Paradoxically, in important biological contexts these antagonistic factors are co-expressed and target overlapping genomic regions. The ensuing cyclic biochemistry of cytosine modifications gives rise to a continuous, out-of-thermal equilibrium transition through different methylation states. But what is the purpose of this intriguing turnover of DNA methylation? Recent evidence demonstrates that methylation turnover is enriched at gene distal regulatory elements, including enhancers, and can give rise to large-scale oscillatory dynamics. We discuss this phenomenon and propose that DNA methylation turnover might facilitate key lineage decisions.

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Nature reviews. Genetics, 1, 1, 06 Oct 2020

PMID: 33024290