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Open Access Research article

The distribution of a germline methylation marker suggests a regional mechanism of LINE-1 silencing by the piRNA-PIWI system

Martin I Sigurdsson12, Albert V Smith3, Hans T Bjornsson45* and Jon J Jonsson12*

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Faculty of Medicine, University of Iceland, Reykjavík IS-101, Iceland

2 Department of Genetics and Molecular Medicine, Landspitali-University Hospital, Reykjavik IS-101, Iceland

3 Icelandic Heart Association, Kopavogur IS-201, Iceland

4 McKusick-Nathans Institute of Genetic Medicine, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, MD 21287, USA

5 Harriet Lane Pediatric Residency Program, Baltimore, MD, USA

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BMC Genetics 2012, 13:31  doi:10.1186/1471-2156-13-31

Published: 24 April 2012



A defense system against transposon activity in the human germline based on PIWI proteins and piRNA has recently been discovered. It represses the activity of LINE-1 elements via DNA methylation by a largely unknown mechanism. Based on the dispersed distribution of clusters of piRNA genes in a strand-specific manner on all human chromosomes, we hypothesized that this system might work preferentially on local and proximal sequences. We tested this hypothesis with a methylation-associated SNP (mSNP) marker which is based on the density of C-T transitions in CpG dinucleotides as a surrogate marker for germline methylation.


We found significantly higher density of mSNPs flanking piRNA clusters in the human genome for flank sizes of 1-16 Mb. A dose-response relationship between number of piRNA genes and mSNP density was found for up to 16 Mb of flanking sequences. The chromosomal density of hypermethylated LINE-1 elements had a significant positive correlation with the chromosomal density of piRNA genes (r = 0.41, P = 0.05). Genome windows of 1-16 Mb containing piRNA clusters had significantly more hypermethylated LINE-1 elements than windows not containing piRNA clusters. Finally, the minimum distance to the next piRNA cluster was significantly shorter for hypermethylated LINE-1 compared to normally methylated elements (14.4 Mb vs 16.1 Mb).


Our observations support our hypothesis that the piRNA-PIWI system preferentially methylates sequences in close proximity to the piRNA clusters and perhaps physically adjacent sequences on other chromosomes. Furthermore they suggest that this proximity effect extends up to 16 Mb. This could be due to an unknown localization signal, transcription of piRNA genes near the nuclear membrane or the presence of an unknown RNA molecule that spreads across the chromosome and targets the methylation directed by the piRNA-PIWI complex. Our data suggest a region specific molecular mechanism which can be sought experimentally.

piRNA; PIWI; LINE-1; Transposable element; Germline; Methylation; Epigenetics