Cytosine DNA methylation (mC) is a genome modification that can regulate the expression of coding and non-coding genetic elements. However, little is known about the involvement of mC in response to environmental cues. Using whole genome bisulfite sequencing to assess the spatio-temporal dynamics of mC in rice grown under phosphate starvation and recovery conditions, we identified widespread phosphate starvation-induced changes in mC, preferentially localized in transposable elements (TEs) close to highly induced genes. These changes in mC occurred after changes in nearby gene transcription, were mostly DCL3a-independent, and could partially be propagated through mitosis, however no evidence of meiotic transmission was observed. Similar analyses performed in Arabidopsis revealed a very limited effect of phosphate starvation on mC, suggesting a species-specific mechanism. Overall, this suggests that TEs in proximity to environmentally induced genes are silenced via hypermethylation, and establishes the temporal hierarchy of transcriptional and epigenomic changes in response to stress.Phosphate is an important nutrient for all living organisms. This chemical group forms part of the backbone of DNA molecules, and has a crucial role in many chemical reactions that occur inside cells. Plants in particular need a source of phosphate to grow. This is why agricultural fertilizers are rich in phosphate, but unfortunately, the use of fertilizers is not sustainable. Many researchers are now looking for new ways to maintain high crop yields without chemical fertilizers, and understanding how crops are affected in times of shortage will be pivotal to achieving this goal.DNA contains coded information in the form of genes, which can either be switched on or off. Chemical marks added to the DNA can earmark genes for activation or inactivation, a bit like handwritten annotations in an instruction manual. One example is the addition of a chemical tag called a methyl group to one of the letters of the DNA code—so-called ‘cytosine methylation’. However, little is known about how the pattern of these chemical marks on DNA changes in response to changes in the environment.Secco et al. investigated changes in cytosine methylation in both rice and Arabidopsis plants that had been deprived of phosphate. Arabidopsis, or thale cress, is a model plant that is often studied by plant biologists because it is small and grows quickly. The experiments showed that when rice plants were not given enough phosphate, the pattern of DNA methylation changed. This was particularly true around certain genes that help the plants survive in these difficult conditions. Notably, in the absence of phosphate, methylation also occurs more often in DNA sequences called transposable elements that sit close to these useful genes, and less often around other genes.Transposable elements, also known as ‘jumping genes’ can move within the genome and thus potentially have damaging effects through altering the DNA sequence. However, DNA methylation normally prevents this from happening. Therefore, the extra methylation observed by Secco et al. may be a cautionary measure to inactivate these transposable elements and limit their potential deleterious effects. Further experiments went on to show that these useful genes seem to be switched on before the DNA of these transposable elements is methylated, implying that the extra methylation observed in these transposable elements is a consequence of the activation of these nearby useful genes.By contrast, similar experiments performed in Arabidopsis reveal a very limited change in DNA methylation when the plants are grown under stressful conditions. This might be because Arabidopsis has considerably fewer transposable elements than rice. The next challenge will be to explore how significant the environmentally induced silencing of transposable elements is to the stress responses and genome integrity of crop plants.
Secco, D., Wang, C., Shou, H., Schultz, M. D., Chiarenza, S., Nussaume, L., … Lister, R. (2015). Stress induced gene expression drives transient DNA methylation changes at adjacent repetitive elements. ELife, 4. https://doi.org/10.7554/elife.09343