Received November 15, 2004
The study of the biological role of DNA methylation in vertebrates has involved considerable controversy. Research in this area has proceeded well despite the complexity of the subject and the difficulties in establishing biological roles, some of which are summarized in this review. Now there is justifiably much more interest in DNA methylation than previously, and many more laboratories are engaged in this research. The results of numerous studies indicate that some tissue-specific differences in vertebrate DNA methylation help maintain patterns of gene expression or are involved in fine-tuning or establishing expression patterns. Therefore, vertebrate DNA methylation cannot just be assigned a role in silencing transposable elements and foreign DNA sequences, as has been suggested. DNA methylation is clearly implicated in modulating X chromosome inactivation and in establishing genetic imprinting. Also, hypermethylation of CpG-rich promoters of tumor suppressor genes in cancer has a critical role in downregulating expression of these genes and thus participating in carcinogenesis. The complex nature of DNA methylation patterns extends to carcinogenesis because global DNA hypomethylation is found in the same cancers displaying hypermethylation elsewhere in the genome. A wide variety of cancers display both DNA hypomethylation and hypermethylation, and either of these types of changes can be significantly associated with tumor progression. These findings and the independence of cancer-linked DNA hypomethylation from cancer-linked hypermethylation strongly implicate DNA hypomethylation, as well as hypermethylation, in promoting carcinogenesis. Furthermore, various DNA demethylation methodologies have been shown to increase the formation of certain types of cancers in animals, and paradoxically, DNA hypermethylation can cause carcinogenesis in other model systems. Therefore, there is a need for caution in the current use of demethylating agents as anti-cancer drugs. Nonetheless, DNA demethylation therapy clearly may be very useful in cases where better alternatives do not exist.
KEY WORDS: DNA methylation, cancer, vertebrates