Global epigenetic reprogramming is considered to be essential during embryo development to establish totipotency. In the classic model first described in the mouse, the genome-wide DNA demethylation is asymmetric between the paternal and the maternal genome. The paternal genome undergoes ten-eleven translocation (TET)-mediated active DNA demethylation, which is completed before the end of the first cell cycle. Since TET enzymes oxidize 5-methylcytosine to 5-hydroxymethylcytosine, the latter is postulated to be an intermediate stage toward DNA demethylation. The maternal genome, on the other hand, is protected from active demethylation and undergoes replication-dependent DNA demethylation. However, several species do not show the asymmetric DNA demethylation process described in this classic model, since 5-methylcytosine and 5-hydroxymethylcytosine are present during the first cell cycle in both parental genomes. In this study, global changes in the levels of 5-methylcytosine and 5-hydroxymethylcytosine throughout pronuclear development in equine zygotes produced in vitro were assessed using immunofluorescent staining.
We were able to show that 5-methylcytosine and 5-hydroxymethylcytosine both were explicitly present throughout pronuclear development, with similar intensity levels in both parental genomes, in equine zygotes produced by ICSI. The localization patterns of 5-methylcytosine and 5-hydroxymethylcytosine, however, were different, with 5-hydroxymethylcytosine homogeneously distributed in the DNA, while 5-methylcytosine tended to be clustered in certain regions. Fluorescence quantification showed increased 5-methylcytosine levels in the maternal genome from PN1 to PN2, while no differences were found in PN3 and PN4. No differences were observed in the paternal genome. Normalized levels of 5-hydroxymethylcytosine were preserved throughout all pronuclear stages in both parental genomes.
In conclusion, the horse does not seem to follow the classic model of asymmetric demethylation as no evidence of global DNA demethylation of the paternal pronucleus during the first cell cycle was demonstrated. Instead, both parental genomes displayed sustained and similar levels of methylation and hydroxymethylation throughout pronuclear development.