The epigenome is significantly perturbed in hematological malignancies with global DNA hypomethylation and localized hypermethylation of gene promoter CpG islands. Whether specific gene promoter hypermethylation can contribute to the clonal expansion of hematopoietic stem and progenitor cells (HSPCs) in humans by affecting HSPC biology, independently of genetic mutations, has not previously been investigated due to the lack of appropriate tools. We show for the first time that it is possible to target de novo DNA methylation using CRISPR/Cas9 in human CD34+ cells isolated from cord blood (CB). DNA methylation targeted to key cell cycle control gene promoters, INK4b (p15) and ARF (p14), is permanently maintained after dCas9 3A3L degradation and inherited as cells differentiate; inhibiting gene expression and affecting the colony forming potential of CD34+ cells. This demonstrates that specific DNA hypermethylation events can permanently change HSPC biology and impact differentiation, potentially contributing to pre-malignant processes.


Human CD34+ HSPCs were isolated from human CB and maintained in liquid culture for 24 hours before nucleofection with mRNA encoding an adapted form of CRISPR/Cas9 which has no nuclease activity (dCas9) and is fused to the catalytic domain of DNA methyltransferase 3A (DNMT3A) and 3L (3A3L). The nucleofection cocktail contained dCas9 3A3L or dCas9 3A3L-mut (lacks methyltransferase activity) and 1 to 3 guide RNAs to target DNA methylation to combinations of the INK4a-ARF-INK4b locus. Cells were then seeded into methylcellulose for a primary colony forming assay (CFU). Colonies were scored after 14 days and cells were either harvested and pooled or individual colonies were picked for single-colony molecular analyses. The DNA was extracted and methylation at the INK4a-ARF-INK4b promoters was quantified using targeted bisulfite sequencing; target gene expression was measured using qPCR. The remaining cells from the primary CFU were re-plated a second (secondary CFU) and third (tertiary CFU) time and colonies were again scored after 14 days.

Results and Conclusions

Targeting DNA methylation to the INK4a-ARF-INK4b locus or INK4b individually in human CD34+ cells resulted in maintenance of hypermethylation at ARF and/or INK4b gene promoters in individual BFU-E (burst-forming unit-erythroid) and CFU-GM (granulocyte, macrophage) colonies as measured by single-colony targeted bisulfite sequencing after the primary CFU; causing heritable repression of INK4b gene expression in the differentiated cells. Some CpGs were up to 90% methylated, indicating that DNA methylation added at these gene promoters is highly stable as cells differentiate. Hypermethylation of ARF and INK4b was found in some colonies even after the tertiary CFU, demonstrating long-term maintenance of promoter hypermethylation. Unexpectedly, no DNA hypermethylation was detected at INK4a in differentiated cells, but whether this is the case for all subpopulations of HSPCs (i.e. HSCs or lymphoid progenitors) is under investigation. Hypermethylation of INK4b and ARF increased the colony forming potential of CD34+ cells in primary, secondary and tertiary CFUs, compared to the control. Conversely, methylation targeted to INK4b alone did not significantly affect the number of colonies in the first CFU, and decreased the number of colonies in the secondary CFU. This suggests a complex interplay between key cell cycle regulators ARF and INK4b in CD34+ cells and during differentiation which can be disrupted by DNA hypermethylation and gene repression.

These findings demonstrate the novel insights we can gain by using CRISPR/Cas9 tools to target DNA methylation and these investigations will reveal how gene promoter hypermethylation can impact HSPC function. Furthermore, studying this locus may uncover an important role for DNA hypermethylation in the development of myeloid malignancies, since INK4b is frequently hypermethylated, but rarely mutated, in myeloid dysplastic/proliferative neoplasms and acute myeloid leukemia.


Gribben:Janssen: Consultancy, Honoraria, Research Funding; Celgene: Consultancy, Honoraria, Research Funding; Abbvie: Consultancy, Honoraria, Research Funding; Acerta/Astra Zeneca: Consultancy, Honoraria, Research Funding.

Author notes


Asterisk with author names denotes non-ASH members.