Email updates

Keep up to date with the latest news and content from Genome Biology and BioMed Central.

Open Access Highly Accessed Research

Cell death upon epigenetic genome methylation: a novel function of methyl-specific deoxyribonucleases

Eri Fukuda12, Katarzyna H Kaminska34, Janusz M Bujnicki134 and Ichizo Kobayashi125*

Author Affiliations

1 Laboratory of Social Genome Sciences, Department of Medical Genome Sciences, University of Tokyo, 4-6-1 Shirokanedai, Minato-ku, Tokyo, 108-8639, Japan

2 Graduate Program in Biophysics and Biochemistry, Graduate School of Science, University of Tokyo, 4-6-1 Shirokanedai, Minato-ku, Tokyo, 108-8639, Japan

3 International Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology, Trodena 4, 02-109 Warsaw, Poland

4 Faculty of Biology, Adam Mickiewicz University, Umultowska 89, 61-614 Poznan, Poland

5 Institute of Medical Science, University of Tokyo, 4-6-1 Shirokanedai, Minato-ku, Tokyo, 108-8639, Japan

For all author emails, please log on.

Genome Biology 2008, 9:R163  doi:10.1186/gb-2008-9-11-r163

Published: 21 November 2008

Abstract

Background

Alteration in epigenetic methylation can affect gene expression and other processes. In Prokaryota, DNA methyltransferase genes frequently move between genomes and present a potential threat. A methyl-specific deoxyribonuclease, McrBC, of Escherichia coli cuts invading methylated DNAs. Here we examined whether McrBC competes with genome methylation systems through host killing by chromosome cleavage.

Results

McrBC inhibited the establishment of a plasmid carrying a PvuII methyltransferase gene but lacking its recognition sites, likely through the lethal cleavage of chromosomes that became methylated. Indeed, its phage-mediated transfer caused McrBC-dependent chromosome cleavage. Its induction led to cell death accompanied by chromosome methylation, cleavage and degradation. RecA/RecBCD functions affect chromosome processing and, together with the SOS response, reduce lethality. Our evolutionary/genomic analyses of McrBC homologs revealed: a wide distribution in Prokaryota; frequent distant horizontal transfer and linkage with mobility-related genes; and diversification in the DNA binding domain. In these features, McrBCs resemble type II restriction-modification systems, which behave as selfish mobile elements, maintaining their frequency by host killing. McrBCs are frequently found linked with a methyltransferase homolog, which suggests a functional association.

Conclusions

Our experiments indicate McrBC can respond to genome methylation systems by host killing. Combined with our evolutionary/genomic analyses, they support our hypothesis that McrBCs have evolved as mobile elements competing with specific genome methylation systems through host killing. To our knowledge, this represents the first report of a defense system against epigenetic systems through cell death.