Genomic imprinting

Genomic imprinting is an epigenetic phenomenon that causes genes to be expressed in a parent-of-origin-specific manner. Forms of genomic imprinting have been demonstrated in fungi, plants and animals. As of 2014, there are about 150 imprinted genes known in the mouse and about half that in humans.

That imprinting might be a feature of mammalian development was suggested in breeding experiments in mice carrying reciprocal chromosomal translocations. Nucleus transplantation experiments in mouse zygotes in the early 1980s confirmed that normal development requires the contribution of both the maternal and paternal genomes. The vast majority of mouse embryos derived from parthenogenesis (called parthenogenones, with two maternal or egg genomes) and androgenesis (called androgenones, with two paternal or sperm genomes) die at or before the blastocyst/implantation stage. In the rare instances that they develop to postimplantation stages, gynogenetic embryos show better embryonic development relative to placental development, while for androgenones, the reverse is true. Nevertheless, for the latter, only a few have been described (in a 1984 paper).

At the same time as the generation of the gynogenetic and androgenetic embryos discussed above, mouse embryos were also being generated that contained only small regions that were derived from either a paternal or maternal source. The generation of a series of such uniparental disomies, which together span the entire genome, allowed the creation of an imprinting map. Those regions which when inherited from a single parent result in a discernible phenotype contain imprinted gene(s). Further research showed that within these regions there were often numerous imprinted genes. Around 80% of imprinted genes are found in clusters such as these, called imprinted domains, suggesting a level of co-ordinated control. More recently, genome-wide screens to identify imprinted genes have used differential expression of mRNAs from control fetuses and parthenogenetic or androgenetic fetuses hybridized to expression arrays, allele-specific gene expression using SNP genotyping arrays, transcriptome sequencing, and in silico prediction pipelines.

Others have approached their study of the origins of genomic imprinting from a different side, arguing that natural selection is operating on the role of epigenetic marks as machinery for homologous chromosome recognition during meiosis, rather than on their role in differential expression. This argument centers on the existence of epigenetic effects on chromosomes that do not directly affect gene expression, but do depend on which parent the chromosome originated from. This group of epigenetic changes that depend on the chromosome's parent of origin (including both those that affect gene expression and those that do not) are called parental origin effects, and include phenomena such as paternal X inactivation in the marsupials, nonrandom parental chromatid distribution in the ferns, and even mating type switching in yeast. This diversity in organisms that show parental origin effects has prompted theorists to place the evolutionary origin of genomic imprinting before the last common ancestor of plants and animals, over a billion years ago.

Imprinting may cause problems in cloning, with clones having DNA that is not methylated in the correct positions. It is possible that this is due to a lack of time for reprogramming to be completely achieved. When a nucleus is added to an egg during somatic cell nuclear transfer, the egg starts dividing in minutes, as compared to the days or months it takes for reprogramming during embryonic development. If time is the responsible factor, it may be possible to delay cell division in clones, giving time for proper reprogramming to occur.

DIRAS3 is a paternally expressed and maternally imprinted gene located on chromosome 1 in humans. Reduced DIRAS3 expression is linked to an increased risk of ovarian and breast cancers; in 41% of breast and ovarian cancers the protein encoded by DIRAS3 is not expressed, suggesting that it functions as a tumor suppressor gene Therefore, if uniparental disomy occurs and a person inherits both chromosomes from the mother, the gene will not be expressed and the individual is put at a greater risk for breast and ovarian cancer.

In placental species, parent-offspring conflict can result in the evolution of strategies, such as genomic imprinting, for embryos to subvert maternal nutrient provisioning. Despite several attempts to find it, genomic imprinting has not been found in the platypus, reptiles, birds or fish. The absence of genomic imprinting in a placental reptile, the southern grass skink, is interesting as genomic imprinting was thought to be associated with the evolution of viviparity and placental nutrient transport.

A similar imprinting phenomenon has also been described in flowering plants (angiosperms). During fertilization of the egg cell, a second, separate fertilization event gives rise to the endosperm, an extraembryonic structure that nourishes the embryo in a manner analogous to the mammalian placenta. Unlike the embryo, the endosperm is often formed from the fusion of two maternal cells with a male gamete. This results in a triploid genome. The 2:1 ratio of maternal to paternal genomes appears to be critical for seed development. Some genes are found to be expressed from both maternal genomes while others are expressed exclusively from the lone paternal copy. It has been suggested that these imprinted genes are responsible for the triploid block effect in flowering plants that prevents hybridization between diploids and autotetraploids.