In biological systems, methylation is accomplished by enzymes. Methylation can modify heavy metals, regulate gene expression, RNA processing and protein function. It has been recognized as a key process underlying epigenetics.
Methanogenesis, the process that generates methane from CO2, involves a series of methylation reactions. These reactions are effected by a set of enzymes harbored by a family of anaerobic microbes.
Cycle for methanogenesis, showing intermediates.
In reverse methanogenesis, methane serves as the methylating agent.
Together with ubiquitin and phosphorylation, methylation is a major biochemical process for modifying protein function. The most prevalent protein methylations produce specific histones from arginine and lysine. Otherwise histidine, glutamate, asparagine, cysteine are susceptible to methylation. Some of these products include S-methylcysteine, two isomers of N-methylhistidine, and two isomers of N-methylarginine.
In methylcobalamin-dependent forms of the enzyme, the reaction proceeds by two steps in a ping-pong reaction. The enzyme is initially primed into a reactive state by the transfer of a methyl group from N5-MeTHF to Co(I) in enzyme-bound cobalamin (Cob), forming methyl-cobalamin(Me-Cob) that now contains Me-Co(III) and activating the enzyme. Then, a Hcy that has coordinated to an enzyme-bound zinc to form a reactive thiolate reacts with the Me-Cob. The activated methyl group is transferred from Me-Cob to the Hcy thiolate, which regenerates Co(I) in Cob, and Met is released from the enzyme.
Heavy metals: arsenic, mercury, cadmium
Biomethylation is the pathway for converting some heavy elements into more mobile or more lethal derivatives that can enter the food chain. The biomethylation of arsenic compounds starts with the formation of methanearsonates. Thus, trivalent inorganic arsenic compounds are methylated to give methanearsonate. S-adenosylmethionine is the methyl donor. The methanearsonates are the precursors to dimethylarsonates, again by the cycle of reduction (to methylarsonous acid) followed by a second methylation. Related pathways apply to the biosynthesis of methylmercury.
DNA methylation in vertebrates typically occurs at CpG sites (cytosine-phosphate-guanine sites-that is, where a cytosine is directly followed by a guanine in the DNA sequence). This methylation results in the conversion of the cytosine to 5-methylcytosine. The formation of Me-CpG is catalyzed by the enzyme DNA methyltransferase. In mammals, DNA methylation is common in body cells, and methylation of CpG sites seems to be the default. Human DNA has about 80-90% of CpG sites methylated, but there are certain areas, known as CpG islands, that are CG-rich (high cytosine and guanine content, made up of about 65% CG residues), wherein none is methylated. These are associated with the promoters of 56% of mammalian genes, including all ubiquitously expressed genes. One to two percent of the human genome are CpG clusters, and there is an inverse relationship between CpG methylation and transcriptional activity. Methylation contributing to epigenetic inheritance can occur through either DNA methylation or protein methylation. Improper methylations of human genes can lead to disease development, including cancer.
Similarly, RNA methylation occurs in different RNA species viz. tRNA, rRNA, mRNA, tmRNA, snRNA, snoRNA, miRNA, and viral RNA. Different catalytic strategies are employed for RNA methylation by a variety of RNA-methyltransferases. RNA methylation is thought to have existed before DNA methylation in the early forms of life evolving on earth.
N6-methyladenosine (m6A) is the most common and abundant methylation modification in RNA molecules (mRNA) present in eukaryotes. 5-methylcytosine (5-mC) also commonly occurs in various RNA molecules. Recent data strongly suggest that m6A and 5-mC RNA methylation affects the regulation of various biological processes such as RNA stability and mRNA translation, and that abnormal RNA methylation contributes to etiology of human diseases.
Methyl metabolism is very ancient and can be found in all organisms on earth, from bacteria to humans, indicating the importance of methyl metabolism for physiology. Indeed, pharmacological inhibition of global methylation in species ranging from human, mouse, fish, fly, round worm, plant, algae and cyanobacteria causes the same effects on their biological rhythms, demonstrating conserved physiological roles of methylation during evolution.
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