The analysis of globin gene regulation has elucidated many of the principles underlying mammalian gene expression. To understand how the epigenetic program that unfolds during hematopoiesis impacts on alpha (α)-globin gene expression, we analyzed DNA methylation at over 200 CpG dinucleotides in 130 kb around the human α-globin gene cluster focussing particularly on a region (12 kb) covering the α2 and α1-globin genes (HBA2 and HBA1), and the upstream regulatory sites (DNAse I hypersensitive sites (HS) -48, HS-40, HS-33, and HS-10); so-called multi-species conserved sequencesregulatory element1-4 (MCS-R1-4). Cultures of primary adult erythroid cells (at three stages: early, intermediate, and late) were analyzed together with non-erythroid human cells (neutrophils, peripheral blood mononuclear cells, and a human embryonic stem (ES) cell line). Using a recently published method involving bisulphite modification and MALDI-TOF Mass Spectrometry we quantified the level of DNA methylation across the alpha globin cluster. Most sequences outside of the CpG islands were methylated. However, the DNA methylation levels between erythroid and non-erythroid cells differed at regulatory elements. MCS-R1 contained only 1 CpG site and the average percentage of DNA methylation for erythroid and non-erythroid was 8% and 40%, respectively. While they were 8% vs. 42% (p=0.428), 11% vs. 99% (p=0.054), and 14% vs. 97% (p=0.001) in MCS-R2 to 4, respectively. To study changes in DNA methylation in a comprehensive, developmental and tissue-specific manner, we used a humanized-mouse model, in which the conserved α-globin syntenic region of mouse genomic sequence is replaced by that of human. This contains all cis-acting sequences required for fully regulated expression of the α-globin genes. Although the alpha globin cluster is expressed efficiently in this model, DNA methylation patterns differed in the 20 kb region encompassing the α-globin genes when comparing primary human cells and primary humanized cells. DNA in humanized cells were relatively hypomethylated both in erythroid and non-erythroid tissues. The methylation levels were higher in testis of the humanized mouse than in other tissues but still not as high as those in normal human non-erythroid cells. The cause of these differences is being investigated. Despite these differences, the humanized-mouse mimicked the patterns of methylation found in regulatory elements in erythroid and nonerythroid cells. This study shows that despite appropriate regulation of gene expression, epigenetic templating may differ between species (human and mouse). DNA methylation at the upstream regulatory elements might be involved in the regulation of α-globin gene expression during erythropoiesis, although it is equally possible that these changes in methylation are generated by passive demethylation secondary to transcription factor binding in erythroid cells. The mechanism(s) underlying demethylation of regulatory elements during differentiation remains to be clarified.

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