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DNA methylation in stem cell renewal and multipotency

María Berdasco1 and Manel Esteller123*

Author Affiliations

1 Cancer Epigenetics and Biology Program (PEBC), Bellvitge Biomedical Research Institute (IDIBELL), 08908, L'Hospitalet de Llobregat, Av. Gran Via 199-203, Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain

2 Departament of Physiological Sciences II, School of Medicine, University of Barcelona, Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain

3 Institució Catalana de Recerca i Estudis Avançats (ICREA), Passeig Lluis Companys, 23, 08010 Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain

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Stem Cell Research & Therapy 2011, 2:42  doi:10.1186/scrt83

Published: 31 October 2011


Owing to their potential for differentiation into multiple cell types, multipotent stem cells extracted from many adult tissues are an attractive stem cell resource for the replacement of damaged tissues in regenerative medicine. The requirements for cellular differentiation of an adult stem cell are a loss of proliferation potential and a gain of cell-type identity. These processes could be restricted by epigenetic modifications that prevent the risks of lineage-unrelated gene expression or the undifferentiated features of stem cells in adult somatic cells. In this review, we focus on the role of DNA methylation in controlling the transcriptional activity of genes important for self-renewal, the dynamism of CpG methylation of tissue-specific genes during several differentiation programs, and whether the multilineage potential of adult stem cells could be imposed early in the original precursor stem cells through CpG methylation. Additionally, we draw attention to the role of DNA methylation in adult stem cell differentiation by reviewing the reports on spontaneous differentiation after treatment with demethylating agents and by considering the evidence provided by reprogramming of somatic cells into undifferentiated cells (that is, somatic nuclear transfer or generation of induced pluripotent cells). It is clear from the evidence that DNA methylation is necessary for controlling stem cell proliferation and differentiation, but their exact contribution in each lineage program is still unclear. As a consequence, in a clinical setting, caution should be exerted before employing adult stem cells or their derivatives in regenerative medicine and appropriate tests should be applied to ensure the integrity of the genome and epigenome.