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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Age-related human small intestine methylation: evidence for stem cell niches

Jung Yeon Kim1, Kimberly D Siegmund2, Simon Tavaré3 and Darryl Shibata1*

Author Affiliations

1 Departments of Pathology, University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine, Los Angeles, CA 90033, USA

2 Preventive Medicine, University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine, Los Angeles, CA 90033, USA

3 Department of Biological Sciences, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA 90089, USA, and Department of Oncology, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK

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BMC Medicine 2005, 3:10  doi:10.1186/1741-7015-3-10

Published: 23 June 2005



The small intestine is constructed of many crypts and villi, and mouse studies suggest that each crypt contains multiple stem cells. Very little is known about human small intestines because mouse fate mapping strategies are impractical in humans. However, it is theoretically possible that stem cell histories are inherently written within their genomes. Genomes appear to record histories (as exemplified by use of molecular clocks), and therefore it may be possible to reconstruct somatic cell dynamics from somatic cell errors. Recent human colon studies suggest that random somatic epigenetic errors record stem cell histories (ancestry and total numbers of divisions). Potentially age-related methylation also occurs in human small intestines, which would allow characterization of their stem cells and comparisons with the colon.


Methylation patterns in individual crypts from 13 small intestines (17 to 78 years old) were measured by bisulfite sequencing. The methylation patterns were analyzed by a quantitative model to distinguish between immortal or niche stem cell lineages.


Age-related methylation was observed in the human small intestines. Crypt methylation patterns were more consistent with stem cell niches than immortal stem cell lineages. Human large and small intestine crypt niches appeared to have similar stem cell dynamics, but relatively less methylation accumulated with age in the small intestines. There were no apparent stem cell differences between the duodenum and ileum, and stem cell survival did not appear to decline with aging.


Crypt niches containing multiple stem cells appear to maintain human small intestines. Crypt niches appear similar in the colon and small intestine, and the small intestinal stem cell mitotic rate is the same as or perhaps slower than that of the colon. Although further studies are needed, age-related methylation appears to record somatic cell histories, and a somatic epigenetic molecular clock strategy may potentially be applied to other human tissues to reconstruct otherwise occult stem cell histories.