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More than 500 animal species epigenetically mapped for the first time

An international research team led by Christoph Bock from the CeMM, an interdisciplinary research institute for molecular medicine of the Austrian Academy of Sciences, with the collaboration of researchers at the Research Institute of Wildlife Ecology at the Vetmeduni, has created a catalogue of the DNA methylation of 580 animal species for the first time.

[Translate to English:] Methylierte DNA, Grafik: Christoph Bock/CeMM

The first authors of the study, Johanna Klughammer and Daria Romanovskaia, together with Amelie Nemc, processed and analyzed a total of 2,443 animal tissue samples. Many of these samples came from the wildlife pathology unit of the Research Institute of Wildlife Ecology in Vienna and the Ocean Genome Legacy Center in Boston, but marine animals purchased at Vienna's Naschmarkt were also analyzed.

These data allowed a detailed analysis of the evolution of epigenetic regulation and the epigenome. DNA methylation is the best known and probably the most important epigenetic mechanism. The study shows that the characteristic DNA methylation signatures of animal genomes are evolutionarily very old and arose long before the first mammals. This epigenetic code could even help protect against cancer - as shown by DNA methylation patterns in birds, which rarely develop cancer. Complex animals, including humans, appear to be particularly dependent on the epigenetic protection of the genome through DNA methylation.

DNA methylation is well studied only in mammals, particularly mice and humans. In a decade-long effort to fill critical gaps in our understanding of epigenetics, scientists from Bock's research group at CeMM have now mapped and analyzed DNA methylation profiles from 580 different animal species.

Overall, this study provides the most comprehensive analysis of epigenetics in its evolutionary context to date. It also establishes new methods to study DNA methylation in different animal species. High-quality genomes are not yet available for many species, which is why the team developed and optimized a method to analyze DNA methylation independently of reference genomes.


The study "Comparative analysis of genome-scale, base-resolution DNA methylation profiles across 580 animal species" by Johanna Klughammer*, Daria Romanovskaia*, Amelie Nemc, Annika Posautz, Charlotte Seid, Linda C. Schuster, Melissa C. Keinath, Juan Sebastian Lugo Ramos, Lindsay Kasack, Annie Evankow, Dieter Prinz, Stefanie Kirchberger, Bekir Ergüner, Paul Datlinger, Nikolaus Fortelny, Christian Schmidl, Matthias Farlik, Kaja Skjærven, Andreas Bergthaler, Miriam Liedvogel, Denise Thaller, Pamela A. Burger, Marcela Hermann , Martin Distel, Daniel L. Distel, Anna Kübber-Heiss, and Christoph Bock was published in the journal Nature Communications on January 16, 2023.

*shared first authorship