In Eukaryotic cells, DNA epigenetic modifications play an important role in gene expression and regulation, and protein recognition. In this work we investigate the physical implications of cytosine 5-hydroxymethylation on DNA, its structural and flexibility differences with methylated and unmodified cytosine using molecular dynamics, biophysical experiments and NMR spectroscopy.

In particular the effect of hydroxyl group on free energy of nucleosome and Methyl binding Protein (MBD) binding, comparing in silico and experimental data to shed light on the effect of the reduced flexibility and the direct protein-DNA recognition.

We present a comprehensive, experimental and theoretical study of the impact of 5-hydroxymethylation of DNA cytosine. Using molecular dynamics, biophysical experiments and NMR spectroscopy, we found that Ten-Eleven translocation (TET) dioxygenases generate an epigenetic variant with structural and physical properties similar to those of 5-methylcytosine.

Experiments and simulations demonstrate that 5-methylcytosine (mC) and 5-hydroxymethylcytosine (hmC) generally lead to stiffer DNA than normal cytosine, with poorer circularization efficiencies and lower ability to form nucleosomes. In particular, we can rule out the hypothesis that hydroxymethylation reverts to unmodified cytosine physical properties, as hmC is even more rigid than mC. Thus, we do not expect dramatic changes in the chromatin structure induced by differences in physical properties between d(mCpG) and d(hmCpG).

Conversely, our simulations suggest that methylated-DNA binding domains (MBDs), associated with repression activities, are sensitive to the substitution d(mCpG) ➔ d(hmCpG), while MBD3 which has a dual activation/repression activity is not sensitive to the d(mCpG) d(hmCpG) change.

Overall, while gene activity changes due to cytosine methylation are the result of the combination of stiffness-related chromatin reorganization and MBD binding, those associated to 5-hydroxylation of methylcytosine could be explained by a change in the balance of repression/activation pathways related to differential MBD binding.


Federica Battistini, Pablo D. Dans, Montserrat Terrazas, Chiara L. Castellazzi, Guillem Portella, Mireia Labrador, Núria Villegas, Isabelle Brun-Heath, Carlos González, Modesto Orozco (2021):
The Impact of the HydroxyMethylCytosine epigenetic signature on DNA structure and function.
PLOS Computational Biology 17(11):e1009547

About the author

Stian works in School of Computer Science, at the University of Manchester in Carole Goble‘s eScience Lab as a technical software architect and researcher. In addition to BioExcel, Stian’s involvements include Open PHACTS (pharmacological data warehouse), Common Workflow Language (CWL), Apache Taverna (scientific workflow system), Linked Data and identifiers, research objects (open science) and digital preservation, myExperiment (sharing scientific workflows), provenance (where did things come from and who did it) and annotations (who said what).