Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Genome-wide methylation and expression profiling identifies promoter characteristics affecting demethylation-induced gene up-regulation in melanoma

Jill C Rubinstein1, Nam Tran2, Shuangge Ma3, Ruth Halaban4 and Michael Krauthammer12*

Author Affiliations

1 Interdepartmental Program in Computational Biology & Bioinformatics, Yale University, New Haven, CT 06520, USA

2 Department of Pathology, Yale University, New Haven, CT 06520, USA

3 School of Public Health, Yale University, New Haven, CT 06520, USA

4 Department of Dermatology, Yale University, New Haven, CT 06520, USA

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BMC Medical Genomics 2010, 3:4  doi:10.1186/1755-8794-3-4

Published: 9 February 2010



Abberant DNA methylation at CpG dinucleotides represents a common mechanism of transcriptional silencing in cancer. Since CpG methylation is a reversible event, tumor supressor genes that have undergone silencing through this mechanism represent promising targets for epigenetically active anti-cancer therapy. The cytosine analog 5-aza-2'-deoxycytidine (decitabine) induces genomic hypomethylation by inhibiting DNA methyltransferase, and is an example of an epigenetic agent that is thought to act by up-regulating silenced genes.


It is unclear why decitabine causes some silenced loci to re-express, while others remain inactive. By applying data-mining techniques to large-scale datasets, we attempted to elucidate the qualities of promoter regions that define susceptibility to the drug's action. Our experimental data, derived from melanoma cell strains, consist of genome-wide gene expression data before and after treatment with decitabine, as well as genome-wide data on un-treated promoter methylation status, and validation of specific genes by bisulfite sequencing.


We show that the combination of promoter CpG content and methylation level informs the ability of decitabine treatment to up-regulate gene expression. Promoters with high methylation levels and intermediate CpG content appear most susceptible to up-regulation by decitabine, whereas few of those highly methylated promoters with high CpG content are up-regulated. For promoters with low methylation levels, those with high CpG content are more likely to be up-regulated, whereas those with low CpG content are underrepresented among up-regulated genes.


Clinically, elucidating the patterns of action of decitabine could aid in predicting the likelihood of up-regulating epigenetically silenced tumor suppressor genes and others from pathways involved with tumor biology. As a first step toward an eventual translational application, we build a classifier to predict gene up-regulation based on promoter methylation and CpG content, which achieves a performance of 0.77 AUC.