Morphine leads to global genome changes in H3K27me3 levels via a Polycomb Repressive Complex 2 (PRC2) self-regulatory mechanism in mESCs

Iraia Munhoa-Hoyos, John Halsall, Manu Araolaza, Carl Ward, Idoia Garcia, Itziar Urizar-Arenaza, Marta Gianzo, Paloma Garcia, Bryan Turner, Nerea Subiran

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)


Background: Environmentally induced epigenetic changes can lead to health problems or disease, but the mechanisms involved remain unclear. Morphine can pass through the placental barrier leading to abnormal embryo development. However, the mechanism by which morphine causes these effects and how they sometimes persist into adulthood is not well known. To unravel the morphine-induced chromatin alterations involved in aberrant embryo development, we explored the role of the H3K27me3/PRC2 repressive complex in gene expression and its transmission across cellular generations in response to morphine.

Results: Using mouse embryonic stem cells as a model system, we found that chronic morphine treatment induces a global downregulation of the histone modification H3K27me3. Conversely, ChIP-Seq showed a remarkable increase in H3K27me3 levels at specific genomic sites, particularly promoters, disrupting selective target genes related to embryo development, cell cycle and metabolism. Through a self-regulatory mechanism, morphine downregulated the transcription of PRC2 components responsible for H3K27me3 by enriching high H3K27me3 levels at the promoter region. Downregulation of PRC2 components persisted for at least 48 h (4 cell cycles) following morphine removal, though promoter H3K27me3 levels returned to control levels.

Conclusions: Morphine induces targeting of the PRC2 complex to selected promoters, including those of PRC2 components, leading to characteristic changes in gene expression and a global reduction in H3K27me3. Following morphine removal, enhanced promoter H3K27me3 levels revert to normal sooner than global H3K27me3 or PRC2 component transcript levels. We suggest that H3K27me3 is involved in initiating morphine-induced changes in gene expression, but not in their maintenance. Model of Polycomb repressive complex 2 (PRC2) and H3K27me3 alterations induced by chronic morphine exposure. Morphine induces H3K27me3 enrichment at promoters of genes encoding core members of the PRC2 complex and is associated with their transcriptional downregulation.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)170
JournalClinical epigenetics
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 9 Nov 2020


  • Embryo
  • Epigenetic
  • H3K27me3
  • Morphine
  • Next generation sequencing
  • PRC2

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Molecular Biology
  • Genetics
  • Developmental Biology
  • Genetics(clinical)


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