The H19 gene is imprinted with preferential expression from the maternal allele. The putative imprinting control region for this locus is hypermethylated on the repressed paternal allele. Although maternal-specific expression of H19 is observed in mouse blastocysts that develop in vivo, biallelic expression has been documented in embryos and embryonic stem cells experimentally manipulated by in vitro culture conditions. In this study the effect of culture on imprinted H19 expression and methylation was determined. After culture of 2-cell embryos to the blastocyst stage in Whitten's medium, the normally silent paternal H19 allele was aberrantly expressed, whereas little paternal expression was observed following culture in KSOM containing amino acids (KSOM AA). Analysis of the methylation status of a CpG dinucleotide located in the upstream imprinting control region revealed a loss in methylation in embryos cultured in Whitten's medium but not in embryos cultured in KSOM AA. Thus, H19 expression and methylation were adversely affected by culture in Whitten's medium, while the response of H19 to culture in KSOM AA approximated more closely the in vivo situation. It is unlikely that biallelic expression of H19 following culture in Whitten's medium is a generalized effect of lower methylation levels, since the amount of DNA methyltransferase activity and the spatial distribution of Dnmt1 protein were similar in in vivo-derived and cultured embryos. Moreover, imprinted expression of Snrpn was maintained following culture in either medium, indicating that not all imprinted genes are under the same stringent imprinting controls. The finding that culture conditions can dramatically, but selectively, affect the expression of imprinted genes provides a model system for further study of the linkage between DNA methylation and gene expression.
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