DNA methylation in eukaryotes occurs on the cytosine bases in CG, CHG, and CHH (where H indicates non-G nucleotides) contexts and provides an important epigenetic mark in various biological processes. However, the structural and physical properties of methylated DNA are poorly understood. Using nondenaturing polyacrylamide gel electrophoresis, we performed a systematic study of the influence of DNA methylation on the conformation and physical properties of DNA for all CG, CHG, and CHH contexts. In the CG context, methylated multimers of the CG/CG-containing unit fragment migrated in gels slightly faster than their unmethylated counterparts. In the CHG context, both homo- and hemimethylation caused retarded migration of multimers of the CAG/CTG-containing fragment. In the CHH context, methylation caused or enhanced retarded migration of the multimers of CAA/TTG-, CAT/ATG-, CAC/GTG-, CTA/TAG-, or CTT/AAG-containing fragments. These results suggest that methylation increases DNA rigidity in the CG context and introduces distortions into several CHG and CHH sequences. More interestingly, we found that nearly all of the methylation repertoires in the CHG context and 98% of those in the CHH context in human embryonic stem cells were species that undergo conformational changes upon methylation. Similarly, most of the methylation repertoires in the Arabidopsis CHG and CHH contexts were sequences with methylation-induced distortion. We hypothesize that the methylation-induced properties or conformational changes in DNA may facilitate nucleosome formation, which provides the essential mechanism for alterations of chromatin density.
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