A new synthesis in epigenetics: towards a unified function of DNA methylation from invertebrates to vertebrates
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DNA methylation is generally limited to CpG doublets located at the gene promoter with an involvement in gene silencing. Surprisingly, two recent papers showed an extensive methylation affecting coding portions of transcriptionally active genes in human and plants prompting a rethink of DNA methylation in eukaryotes. Actually, gene body methylation is not surprising since it has been repeatedly reported in invertebrates, where it interferes with transcriptional elongation preventing aberrant transcription initiations. As a whole, the published data suggest that the most ancestral function of DNA methylation is the control of genes that are susceptible to transcriptional interference and not to gene silencing. The recruitment of DNA methylation for silencing represents a successive tinkered use. In view of this additional function, the invertebrate-vertebrate transition has been accompanied by new constraints on DNA methylation that resulted in the strong conservation of the DNA methylation machinery in vertebrates and in the non-viability of mutants lacking DNA methylation.