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Genes & Development

Histone lysine methylation and demethylation regulate histone methylation dynamics, which impacts chromatin structure and function. To read and erase the methylated histone residues, lysine demethylases must specifically recognize the histone sequences and methylated sites and discriminate the degree of these methylations. In this issue of Genes & Development, Cheng and colleagues (pp. 1758–1771) determine a crystal structure of histone lysine demethylase KDM2A that specifically targets lower degrees of H3K36 methylation. The results reveal the structural basis for H3K36 substrate specificity and suggest mechanisms of Lys36 demethylation. This KDM2A–H3K36 complex structure, coupled with functional studies, provides needed insight into the process and regulation of histone demethylation.

The ubiquitin proteasome pathway is critical in restraining the activities of the p53 tumor suppressor. Numerous E3 and E4 ligases regulate p53 levels. Additionally, deubquitinating enzymes that modify p53 directly or indirectly also impact p53 function. When alterations of these proteins result in increased p53 activity, cells arrest in the cell cycle, senesce, or apoptose. On the other hand, alterations that result in decreased p53 levels yield tumor-prone phenotypes. This review focuses on the physiological relevance of these important regulators of p53 and their therapeutic implications.

To develop stem cell therapy for small intestinal (SI) diseases, it is essential to determine whether SI stem cells in culture retain their tissue regeneration capabilities. By using a heterotopic transplantation approach, we show that cultured murine SI epithelial organoids are able to reconstitute self-renewing epithelia in the colon. When stably integrated, the SI-derived grafts show many features unique only to the SI but distinct from the colonic epithelium. Our study provides evidence that cultured adult SI stem cells could be a source for cell therapy of intestinal diseases, maintaining their identity along the gastrointestinal tract through an epithelium-intrinsic mechanism.

The dynamic reversible methylation of lysine residues on histone proteins is central to chromatin biology. Key components are demethylase enzymes, which remove methyl moieties from lysine residues. KDM2A, a member of the Jumonji C domain-containing histone lysine demethylase family, specifically targets lower methylation states of H3K36. Here, structural studies reveal that H3K36 specificity for KDM2A is mediated by the U-shaped threading of the H3K36 peptide through a catalytic groove within KDM2A. The side chain of methylated K36 inserts into the catalytic pocket occupied by Ni2+ and cofactor, where it is positioned and oriented for demethylation. Key residues contributing to K36me specificity on histone H3 are G33 and G34 (positioned within a narrow channel), P38 (a turn residue), and Y41 (inserts into its own pocket). Given that KDM2A was found to also bind the H3K36me3 peptide, we postulate that steric constraints could prevent α-ketoglutarate from undergoing an "off-line"-to-"in-line" transition necessary for the demethylation reaction. Furthermore, structure-guided substitutions of residues in the KDM2A catalytic pocket abrogate KDM2A-mediated functions important for suppression of cancer cell phenotypes. Together, our results deduce insights into the molecular basis underlying KDM2A regulation of the biologically important methylated H3K36 mark.

Splicing of pre-mRNAs results in the deposition of the exon junction complex (EJC) upstream of exon–exon boundaries. The EJC plays crucial post-splicing roles in export, translation, localization, and nonsense-mediated decay of mRNAs. It also aids faithful splicing of pre-mRNAs containing large introns, albeit via an unknown mechanism. Here, we show that the core EJC plus the accessory factors RnpS1 and Acinus aid in definition and efficient splicing of neighboring introns. This requires prior deposition of the EJC in close proximity to either an upstream or downstream splicing event. If present in isolation, EJC-dependent introns are splicing-defective also in wild-type cells. Interestingly, the most affected intron belongs to the piwi locus, which explains the reported transposon desilencing in EJC-depleted Drosophila ovaries. Based on a transcriptome-wide analysis, we propose that the dependency of splicing on the EJC is exploited as a means to control the temporal order of splicing events.

The exon junction complex (EJC) is a highly conserved ribonucleoprotein complex that binds RNAs during splicing and remains associated with them following export to the cytoplasm. While the role of this complex in mRNA localization, translation, and degradation has been well characterized, its mechanism of action in splicing a subset of Drosophila and human transcripts remains to be elucidated. Here, we describe a novel function for the EJC and its splicing subunit, RnpS1, in preventing transposon accumulation in both Drosophila germline and surrounding somatic follicle cells. This function is mediated specifically through the control of piwi transcript splicing, where, in the absence of RnpS1, the fourth intron of piwi is retained. This intron contains a weak polypyrimidine tract that is sufficient to confer dependence on RnpS1. Finally, we demonstrate that RnpS1-dependent removal of this intron requires splicing of the flanking introns, suggesting a model in which the EJC facilitates the splicing of weak introns following its initial deposition at adjacent exon junctions. These data demonstrate a novel role for the EJC in regulating piwi intron excision and provide a mechanism for its function during splicing.

One-year survival rates for newly diagnosed hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) are <50%, and unresectable HCC carries a dismal prognosis owing to its aggressiveness and the undruggable nature of its main genetic drivers. By screening a custom library of shRNAs directed toward known drug targets in a genetically defined Myc-driven HCC model, we identified cyclin-dependent kinase 9 (Cdk9) as required for disease maintenance. Pharmacological or shRNA-mediated CDK9 inhibition led to robust anti-tumor effects that correlated with MYC expression levels and depended on the role that both CDK9 and MYC exert in transcription elongation. Our results establish CDK9 inhibition as a therapeutic strategy for MYC-overexpressing liver tumors and highlight the relevance of transcription elongation in the addiction of cancer cells to MYC.

Centromere identity and its epigenetic maintenance require the incorporation of a histone H3 variant called CENP-A at centromeres. CENP-A mislocalization to ectopic sites may disrupt chromatin-based processes and chromosome segregation, so it is important to uncover the mechanisms by which this variant is exclusively localized to centromeres. Here, we identify a role for the conserved chromatin-modifying complex FACT (facilitates chromatin transcription/transactions) in preventing budding yeast CENP-ACse4 mislocalization to euchromatin by mediating its proteolysis. The Spt16 subunit of the FACT complex binds to Psh1 (Pob3/Spt16/histone), an E3 ubiquitin ligase that targets CENP-ACse4 for degradation. The interaction between Psh1 and Spt16 is critical for both CENP-ACse4 ubiquitylation and its exclusion from euchromatin. We found that Psh1 cannot efficiently ubiquitylate CENP-ACse4 nucleosomes in vitro, suggesting that additional factors must facilitate CENP-ACse4 removal from chromatin in vivo. Consistent with this, a Psh1 mutant that cannot associate with FACT has a reduced interaction with CENP-ACse4 in vivo. Together, our data identify a previously unknown mechanism to maintain centromere identity and genomic stability through the FACT-mediated degradation of ectopically localized CENP-ACse4.

Tissues may adopt diverse strategies to establish specific transcriptional programs in daughter lineages. In intestinal crypts, enhancers for genes expressed in both major cell types appear broadly permissive in stem and specified progenitor cells. In blood, another self-renewing tissue, it is unclear when chromatin becomes permissive for transcription of genes expressed in distinct terminal lineages. Using chromatin immunoprecipitation (ChIP) combined with deep sequencing (ChIP-seq) to profile activating histone marks, we studied enhancer dynamics in primary mouse blood stem, progenitor, and specified cells. Stem and multipotent progenitor cells show scant H3K4me2 marking at enhancers bound by specific transcription factors in their committed progeny. Rather, enhancers are modulated dynamically and serially, with substantial loss and gain of H3K4me2, at each cellular transition. Quantitative analysis of these dynamics accurately modeled hematopoiesis according to Waddington’s notion of epigenotypes. Delineation of enhancers in terminal blood lineages coincides with cell specification, and enhancers active in single lineages show well-positioned H3K4me2- and H3K27ac-marked nucleosomes and DNaseI hypersensitivity in other cell types, revealing limited lineage fidelity. These findings demonstrate that enhancer chronology in blood cells differs markedly from that in intestinal crypts. Chromatin dynamics in hematopoiesis provide a useful foundation to consider classical observations such as cellular reprogramming and multilineage locus priming.

DNA replication remains unfinished in many Drosophila polyploid cells, which harbor disproportionately fewer copies of late-replicating chromosomal regions. By analyzing paired-end high-throughput sequence data from polytene larval salivary gland cells, we define 112 underreplicated (UR) euchromatic regions 60–480 kb in size. To determine the effects of underreplication on genome integrity, we analyzed anomalous read pairs and breakpoint reads throughout the euchromatic genome. Each UR euchromatic region contains many different deletions 10–500 kb in size, while very few deletions are present in fully replicated chromosome regions or UR zones from embryo DNA. Thus, during endocycles, stalled forks within UR regions break and undergo local repair instead of remaining stable and generating nested forks. As a result, each salivary gland cell contains hundreds of unique deletions that account for their copy number reductions. Similar UR regions and deletions were observed in ovarian DNA, suggesting that incomplete replication, fork breakage, and repair occur widely in polytene cells. UR regions are enriched in genes encoding immunoglobulin superfamily proteins and contain many neurally expressed and homeotic genes. We suggest that the extensive somatic DNA instability described here underlies position effect variegation, molds the structure of polytene chromosomes, and should be investigated for possible functions.