Multicellular organisms can generate and maintain homogenous populations of cells that make up individual tissues. However, cellular processes that can disrupt homogeneity and how organisms overcome such disruption are unknown. We found that ∼100-fold differences in expression from a repetitive DNA transgene can occur between intestinal cells in Caenorhabditis elegans. These differences are caused by gene silencing in some cells and are actively suppressed by parental and zygotic factors such as the conserved exonuclease ERI-1. If unsuppressed, silencing can spread between some cells in embryos but can be repeat specific and independent of other homologous loci within each cell. Silencing can persist through DNA replication and nuclear divisions, disrupting uniform gene expression in developed animals. Analysis at single-cell resolution suggests that differences between cells arise during early cell divisions upon unequal segregation of an initiator of silencing. Our results suggest that organisms with high repetitive DNA content, which include humans, could use similar developmental mechanisms to achieve and maintain tissue homogeneity.
- Submitted: 16 January 2016
- Accepted: 29 June 2016
This article is distributed under the terms of an Attribution–Noncommercial–Share Alike–No Mirror Sites license for the first six months after the publication date (see http://www.rupress.org/terms). After six months it is available under a Creative Commons License (Attribution–Noncommercial–Share Alike 3.0 Unported license, as described at http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/3.0/).