New epigenetic mapping method for single cells

20 July 2014

A Cambridge collaboration has yielded a new single-cell technique for mapping genome-wide epigenetic marking.

Research from the Babraham Institute  and the Sanger Institute-EBI Single-Cell Genomics Centre has resulted in the new method that allows mapping of DNA methylation. Epigenetic changes are thought to be a powerful mechanism by which external or environmental factors can create potentially heritable changes in DNA expression (but not DNA sequence). There is increasing evidence that such factors can affect not only an individual’s health but also that of their future children, or even grandchildren. However, much remains to be understood.

Hitherto, epigenetic research is said to have relied largely on mouse models, and on samples of multiple cells, where epigenetic changes in individual cells may be masked by those in others. The new single-cell based system is potentially much more versatile. It labels DNA with bisulphite before high-throughput sequencing is used, revealing the location of methylation marks in relation to the DNA sequence.

Babraham Institute researcher Dr Gavin Kelsey said that the method would be crucial for understanding epigenetics in early embryonic development, commenting: "The application of single-cell approaches to epigenetic understanding goes far beyond basic biological research. Future clinical applications could include the analysis of individual cancer cells to provide clinicians with the information to tailor treatments, and improvements in fertility treatment by understanding the potential for epigenetic errors in assisted reproduction technologies".

The research is published in the journal Nature Methods.

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