Genetic and epigenetic editing approach to characterise the nature and function of bivalent histone modifications

Ailbhe Brazel

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

Abstract / Description of output

In eukaryotes, DNA is wrapped around a group of proteins termed histones that are required to precisely control gene expression during development. The amino acids of both the globular domains and unstructured tails of these histones can be modified by chemical moieties, such as methylation, acetylation and ubiquitination. The ‘histone code’ hypothesis proposes that specific combinations of these and other histone modifications contain transcriptional information, which guides the cell machinery to activate or repress gene expression in individual cell types.

Chromatin immunoprecipitation (ChIP) experiments using undifferentiated stem cell populations have identified the genomic co-localisation of histone modifications reported to have opposing effects on transcription, which is known as bivalency. The human α-globin promoter, a well-established model for the study of transcriptional regulation, is bivalent in embryonic stem (ES) cells and this bivalency is resolved once the ES cells terminally differentiate (i.e. only activating or repressing marks remain). In a humanised mouse model, the deletion of a bone fide enhancer within the human α-globin locus results in heterogeneous expression patterns in primary erythroid cells. Notably, this correlates with an unresolved bivalent state at this promoter in terminally differentiated cells.

Using this mouse model it is not feasible to ascertain whether the transcriptional heterogeneity observed in the cells lacking an α-globin enhancer is reflective of epigenetic heterogeneity (i.e. a mixed population of cells) rather than co-localisation of bivalent histone modifications within the same cells. Furthermore, the functional contribution of bivalency to development has yet to be described. To address these difficulties, I aimed to generate a fluorescent reporter system for human α-globin to facilitate the separation of transcriptionally heterogeneous erythroid cells. This model will provide material for ChIP studies on transcriptionally active and inactive populations to determine whether the epigenetic bivalency is reflective of a mixed cell population or true bivalency. In addition, I aimed to produce epigenetic editing tools to target bivalent promoters, which in combination with in vitro differentiation assays would provide an interesting framework to test the function of bivalency during development.

In this study, I extensively tested gene-editing strategies for generating a fluorescent reporter knock-in in humanised mouse ES cells. I validated the suitability of humanised mouse ES cell lines for gene targeting studies and optimised a robust in vitro differentiation protocol for studying erythropoiesis. I utilised both recombineering and CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing tools in tandem with PiggyBac transposon technology, to knock-in the reporter gene. I made significant steps in gene targeting and successfully inserted the reporter downstream of the α-globin gene. I also generated a cloning system to express site-specific DNA-binding domains (TALEs) fused to epigenetic regulators with the aim to resolve bivalent histone modifications in vitro. From preliminary tests using these fusion proteins targeting Nrp1, a bivalent promoter in mES cells, I observed mild but significant changes in gene expression although histone modifications were unchanged. The various tools generated and tested in this study provide a solid foundation for future development of genetic and epigenetic editing at the human α-globin and other bivalent loci.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Edinburgh
  • Vernimmen, Douglas, Supervisor
  • Digard, Paul, Supervisor
  • Hohenstein, Peter, Supervisor
Publication statusPublished - 2018


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