The discovery of cytosine hydroxymethylation (5hmC) as a mechanism that potentially controls DNA methylation changes typical of neoplasia prompted us to investigate its behaviour in colon cancer. 5hmC is globally reduced in proliferating cells such as colon tumours and the gut crypt progenitors, from which tumours can arise.
Here, we show that colorectal tumours and cancer cells express Ten-Eleven-Translocation (TET) transcripts at levels similar to normal tissues. Genome-wide analyses show that promoters marked by 5hmC in normal tissue, and those identified as TET2 targets in colorectal cancer cells, are resistant to methylation gain in cancer. In vitro studies of TET2 in cancer cells confirm that these promoters are resistant to methylation gain independently of sustained TET2 expression. We also find that a considerable number of the methylation gain-resistant promoters marked by 5hmC in normal colon overlap with those that are marked with poised bivalent histone modifications in embryonic stem cells.
Together our results indicate that promoters that acquire 5hmC upon normal colon differentiation are innately resistant to neoplastic hypermethylation by mechanisms that do not require high levels of 5hmC in tumours. Our study highlights the potential of cytosine modifications as biomarkers of cancerous cell proliferation.