Genome-wide methylation of cytosine can be modulated in the presence of TET and thymine DNA glycosylase (TDG) enzymes. TET is able to oxidise 5-methylcytosine (5mC) to 5-hydroxymethylcytosine (5hmC), 5-formylcytosine (5fC) and 5-carboxylcytosine (5caC). TDG can excise the oxidative products 5fC and 5caC, initiating base excision repair. These modified bases are stable and detectable in the genome, suggesting that they could have epigenetic functions in their own right. However, functional investigation of the genome-wide distribution of 5fC has been restricted to cell culture-based systems, while its in vivo profile remains unknown.
Here, we describe the first analysis of the in vivo genome-wide profile of 5fC across a range of tissues from both wild-type and Tdg-deficient E11.5 mouse embryos. Changes in the formylation profile of cytosine upon depletion of TDG suggest TET/TDG-mediated active demethylation occurs preferentially at intron-exon boundaries and reveals a major role for TDG in shaping 5fC distribution at CpG islands. Moreover, we find that active enhancer regions specifically exhibit high levels of 5fC, resulting in characteristic tissue-diagnostic patterns, which suggest a role in embryonic development.
The tissue-specific distribution of 5fC can be regulated by the collective contribution of TET-mediated oxidation and excision by TDG. The in vivo profile of 5fC during embryonic development resembles that of embryonic stem cells, sharing key features including enrichment of 5fC in enhancer and intragenic regions. Additionally, by investigating mouse embryo 5fC profiles in a tissue-specific manner, we identify targeted enrichment at active enhancers involved in tissue development.