The ability to impose exogenous targeted epigenetic changes in the genome represents an attractive goal in gene therapy for the heritable repression of target genes, while potentially enabling the generation and subsequent study of the downstream effects of de novo epigenetic events, which are known to occur in disease. Here we demonstrate the ability of zinc-finger peptides to deliver DNA cytosine methylation in vivo to a genomic target promoter, when expressed as fusions with a mutant prokaryotic DNA cytosine methyltransferase enzyme, thus mimicking cellular de novo methylation events. We show for the first time targeted gene silencing in response to directed DNA cytosine methylation via initiation of a repressive chromatin signature at a targeted genomic locus, characterised by elevation of histone H3K9Me2 and reduction of H3K4Me3 levels at that region. This transcriptional repression is maintained in the absence of sustained targeted methyltransferase action, confirming epigenetic maintenance by the cells own machinery. The inherited DNA methylation pattern is restricted to specific target sites, suggesting that the establishment of repressive chromatin structure does not drive further de novo DNA methylation in this system. Therefore, we demonstrate for the first time, targeted DNA methyltransferases as potential tools for the exogenous and heritable control of gene expression at the chromosomal level, while providing the clearest and most direct confirmation to date of the functional and mechanistic consequences of de novo DNA methylation in the cell. This work represents an important step towards the longer term goal of controlling gene expression through the inheritance of a repressive DNA state, as well as providing a valuable tool for studying spatial and temporal issues associated with ‘genuine’ de novo methylation, on transcription and chromatin structure.

Author notes

Disclosure: No relevant conflicts of interest to declare.