Reactivation of L1 retrotransposon by benzo(a)pyrene involves complex genetic and epigenetic regulation.
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Benzo(a)pyrene (BaP), is an environmental pollutant present in tobacco smoke and a byproduct of fossil fuel combustion which likely contributes to the tumorigenic processes in human cancers including lung and esophageal. Long Interspersed Nuclear Element-1 (LINE-1) or L1 is a mobile element within the mammalian genome that propagates via a "copy-and-paste" mechanism using reverse transcriptase and RNA intermediates. L1 is strongly expressed during early embryogenesis and then silenced as cells initiate differentiation programming. Although the complex transcriptional control mechanisms of L1 are not well understood, L1 reactivation has been described in several human cancers and following exposure of mouse or human cells to BaP. In this study we investigated the molecular mechanisms and epigenetic events that regulate L1 reactivation following BaP exposure. We show that challenge of HeLa cells with BaP induces early enrichment of the transcriptionally-active chromatin markers histone H3 trimethylated at lysine 4 (H3K4Me3) and histone H3 acetylated at lysine 9 (H3K9Ac), and reduces association of DNA methyltransferase-1 (DNMT1) with the L1 promoter. These changes are followed by proteasome-dependent decreases in cellular DNMT1 expression and sustained reduction of cytosine methylation within the L1 promoter CpG island. Pharmacological inhibition of the proteasome signaling pathway with the inhibitor MG132 blocks degradation of DNMT1 and alters BaP-mediated histone epigenetic modifications. We conclude that genetic reactivation of L1 by BaP involves an ordered cascade of epigenetic events that begin with nucleosomal histone modifications and is completed with alterations in DNMT1 recruitment to the L1 promoter and reduced DNA methylation of CpG islands.