Wolf Reik

Research Summary

Epigenetic modifications such as DNA methylation and histone marks are often relatively stable in differentiated and in adult tissues in the body, where they help to confer a stable cell identity on tissues. The process of epigenetic reprogramming, by which many of these marks are removed from DNA, is important for the function of embryonic stem cells and in reprogramming stem cells from adult tissue cells. When this erasure goes wrong there may be adverse consequences for healthy development and ageing, which can potentially extend over more than one generation.

​Our insights into the mechanisms of epigenetic reprogramming may help with developing better strategies for stem cell therapies and to combat age related decline. We have also recently initiated work on epigenetic regulation of social behaviours in insects, where we are interested in how patterning and regulation of DNA methylation in the brain is linked with the evolution of sociality.

Latest Publications

Epigenetic priming by Dppa2 and 4 in pluripotency facilitates multi-lineage commitment.
Eckersley-Maslin MA, Parry A, Blotenburg M, Krueger C, Ito Y, Franklin VNR, Narita M, D'Santos CS, Reik W

How the epigenetic landscape is established in development is still being elucidated. Here, we uncover developmental pluripotency associated 2 and 4 (DPPA2/4) as epigenetic priming factors that establish a permissive epigenetic landscape at a subset of developmentally important bivalent promoters characterized by low expression and poised RNA-polymerase. Differentiation assays reveal that Dppa2/4 double knockout mouse embryonic stem cells fail to exit pluripotency and differentiate efficiently. DPPA2/4 bind both H3K4me3-marked and bivalent gene promoters and associate with COMPASS- and Polycomb-bound chromatin. Comparing knockout and inducible knockdown systems, we find that acute depletion of DPPA2/4 results in rapid loss of H3K4me3 from key bivalent genes, while H3K27me3 is initially more stable but lost following extended culture. Consequently, upon DPPA2/4 depletion, these promoters gain DNA methylation and are unable to be activated upon differentiation. Our findings uncover a novel epigenetic priming mechanism at developmental promoters, poising them for future lineage-specific activation.

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Nature structural & molecular biology, 1, 1, 22 Jun 2020

PMID: 32572255

Low rates of mutation in clinical grade human pluripotent stem cells under different culture conditions.
Thompson O, von Meyenn F, Hewitt Z, Alexander J, Wood A, Weightman R, Gregory S, Krueger F, Andrews S, Barbaric I, Gokhale PJ, Moore HD, Reik W, Milo M, Nik-Zainal S, Yusa K, Andrews PW

The occurrence of repetitive genomic changes that provide a selective growth advantage in pluripotent stem cells is of concern for their clinical application. However, the effect of different culture conditions on the underlying mutation rate is unknown. Here we show that the mutation rate in two human embryonic stem cell lines derived and banked for clinical application is low and not substantially affected by culture with Rho Kinase inhibitor, commonly used in their routine maintenance. However, the mutation rate is reduced by >50% in cells cultured under 5% oxygen, when we also found alterations in imprint methylation and reversible DNA hypomethylation. Mutations are evenly distributed across the chromosomes, except for a slight increase on the X-chromosome, and an elevation in intergenic regions suggesting that chromatin structure may affect mutation rate. Overall the results suggest that pluripotent stem cells are not subject to unusually high rates of genetic or epigenetic alterations.

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Nature communications, 11, 1, 23 Mar 2020

DOI: 10.1038/s41467-020-15271-3

PMID: 32251294

Tet3 ablation in adult brain neurons increases anxiety-like behavior and regulates cognitive function in mice.
Antunes C, Da Silva JD, Guerra-Gomes S, Alves ND, Ferreira F, Loureiro-Campos E, Branco MR, Sousa N, Reik W, Pinto L, Marques CJ

TET3 is a member of the ten-eleven translocation (TET) family of enzymes which oxidize 5-methylcytosine (5mC) into 5-hydroxymethylcytosine (5hmC). Tet3 is highly expressed in the brain, where 5hmC levels are most abundant. In adult mice, we observed that TET3 is present in mature neurons and oligodendrocytes but is absent in astrocytes. To investigate the function of TET3 in adult postmitotic neurons, we crossed Tet3 floxed mice with a neuronal Cre-expressing mouse line, Camk2a-CreERT2, obtaining a Tet3 conditional KO (cKO) mouse line. Ablation of Tet3 in adult mature neurons resulted in increased anxiety-like behavior with concomitant hypercorticalism, and impaired hippocampal-dependent spatial orientation. Transcriptome and gene-specific expression analysis of the hippocampus showed dysregulation of genes involved in glucocorticoid signaling pathway (HPA axis) in the ventral hippocampus, whereas upregulation of immediate early genes was observed in both dorsal and ventral hippocampal areas. In addition, Tet3 cKO mice exhibit increased dendritic spine maturation in the ventral CA1 hippocampal subregion. Based on these observations, we suggest that TET3 is involved in molecular alterations that govern hippocampal-dependent functions. These results reveal a critical role for epigenetic modifications in modulating brain functions, opening new insights into the molecular basis of neurological disorders.

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Molecular psychiatry, 1, 1, 26 Feb 2020

DOI: 10.1038/s41380-020-0695-7

PMID: 32103150