Maria Christophorou

Research Summary

How do the cells of an organism, all of which have exactly the same genetic code, adopt such different fates, morphologies and functions? And how do they then respond to the signals and stresses around them in order to make up a living, growing, healthy organism that can adapt to its environment?

Seminal work in the field of Epigenetics has taught us that the answer to the first question lies in the fact that our genome is subject to epigenetic regulation, which ensures its stability and determines when and where genes produce their transcript and protein products. And the answer to the second question lies largely within the fact that these proteins, which then go on to execute most of the cell’s functions, are themselves subject to regulatory mechanisms which determine when, where and how a protein will function. Our lab combines these two fascinating biological questions to understand how genome-regulating proteins are themselves regulated during development.

We employ biochemistry, cell and molecular biology and mouse model systems to understand the mechanisms that modulate the function of epigenetic regulators, how these mechanisms are perturbed in disease and how they may be targeted for therapeutic effect. We have a particular interest in protein post-translational modifications (PTMs). These are small chemical changes that happen on proteins as a result of cell signalling changes and can quickly alter the activity, stability and sub-cellular localisation of these proteins, as well as their affinity for other molecules. As a result, PTMs add an enormous degree of sophistication to biological systems, beyond what can be achieved by gene regulation.

Our favourite PTM is citrullination, the conversion of an arginine residue to the non-coded amino acid citrulline. Exciting developments in this classically under-explored field have shown that citrullination and the enzymes that catalyse it, the peptidylarginine deiminases (PADIs or PADs) regulate many aspects of cell physiology, while their deregulation contributes to the development of pathologies such as autoimmunity, neurodegeneration and cancer. Understanding the mechanisms that control PADIs and other epigenetic regulators in response to developmental cues and cellular can offer valuable insights into human health, which can be exploited towards therapeutic benefit in a variety of disease conditions.

Latest Publications

Citrullination of HP1γ chromodomain affects association with chromatin.
Wiese M, Bannister AJ, Basu S, Boucher W, Wohlfahrt K, Christophorou MA, Nielsen ML, Klenerman D, Laue ED, Kouzarides T

Stem cell differentiation involves major chromatin reorganisation, heterochromatin formation and genomic relocalisation of structural proteins, including heterochromatin protein 1 gamma (HP1γ). As the principal reader of the repressive histone marks H3K9me2/3, HP1 plays a key role in numerous processes including heterochromatin formation and maintenance.

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Epigenetics & chromatin, 12, 1, 2019

DOI: 10.1186/s13072-019-0265-x

PMID: 30940194

Citrullination regulates pluripotency and histone H1 binding to chromatin.
Christophorou MA, Castelo-Branco G, Halley-Stott RP, Oliveira CS, Loos R, Radzisheuskaya A, Mowen KA, Bertone P, Silva JC, Zernicka-Goetz M, Nielsen ML, Gurdon JB, Kouzarides T

Citrullination is the post-translational conversion of an arginine residue within a protein to the non-coded amino acid citrulline. This modification leads to the loss of a positive charge and reduction in hydrogen-bonding ability. It is carried out by a small family of tissue-specific vertebrate enzymes called peptidylarginine deiminases (PADIs) and is associated with the development of diverse pathological states such as autoimmunity, cancer, neurodegenerative disorders, prion diseases and thrombosis. Nevertheless, the physiological functions of citrullination remain ill-defined, although citrullination of core histones has been linked to transcriptional regulation and the DNA damage response. PADI4 (also called PAD4 or PADV), the only PADI with a nuclear localization signal, was previously shown to act in myeloid cells where it mediates profound chromatin decondensation during the innate immune response to infection. Here we show that the expression and enzymatic activity of Padi4 are also induced under conditions of ground-state pluripotency and during reprogramming in mouse. Padi4 is part of the pluripotency transcriptional network, binding to regulatory elements of key stem-cell genes and activating their expression. Its inhibition lowers the percentage of pluripotent cells in the early mouse embryo and significantly reduces reprogramming efficiency. Using an unbiased proteomic approach we identify linker histone H1 variants, which are involved in the generation of compact chromatin, as novel PADI4 substrates. Citrullination of a single arginine residue within the DNA-binding site of H1 results in its displacement from chromatin and global chromatin decondensation. Together, these results uncover a role for citrullination in the regulation of pluripotency and provide new mechanistic insights into how citrullination regulates chromatin compaction.

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Nature, 507, 7490, 2014

DOI: 10.1038/nature12942

PMID: 24463520

Autophagy inhibition enhances therapy-induced apoptosis in a Myc-induced model of lymphoma.
Amaravadi RK, Yu D, Lum JJ, Bui T, Christophorou MA, Evan GI, Thomas-Tikhonenko A, Thompson CB

Autophagy is a lysosome-dependent degradative pathway frequently activated in tumor cells treated with chemotherapy or radiation. Whether autophagy observed in treated cancer cells represents a mechanism that allows tumor cells to survive therapy or a mechanism for initiating a nonapoptotic form of programmed cell death remains controversial. To address this issue, the role of autophagy in a Myc-induced model of lymphoma generated from cells derived from p53ER(TAM)/p53ER(TAM) mice (with ER denoting estrogen receptor) was examined. Such tumors are resistant to apoptosis due to a lack of nuclear p53. Systemic administration of tamoxifen led to p53 activation and tumor regression followed by tumor recurrence. Activation of p53 was associated with the rapid appearance of apoptotic cells and the induction of autophagy in surviving cells. Inhibition of autophagy with either chloroquine or ATG5 short hairpin RNA (shRNA) enhanced the ability of either p53 activation or alkylating drug therapy to induce tumor cell death. These studies provide evidence that autophagy serves as a survival pathway in tumor cells treated with apoptosis activators and a rationale for the use of autophagy inhibitors such as chloroquine in combination with therapies designed to induce apoptosis in human cancers.

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The Journal of clinical investigation, 117, 2, 2007

DOI: 10.1172/JCI28833

PMID: 17235397