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Genetic and Epigenetic Interplay Define Disease Onset and Severity in Repeat Diseases

Repeat diseases, such as fragile X syndrome, myotonic dystrophy, Friedreich ataxia, Huntington disease, spinocerebellar ataxias, and some forms of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, are caused by repetitive DNA sequences that are expanded in affected individuals. The age at which an individual begins to experience symptoms, and the severity of disease, are partially determined by the size of the repeat. However, the epigenetic state of the area in and around the repeat also plays an important role in determining the age of disease onset and the rate of disease progression. Many repeat diseases share a common epigenetic pattern of increased methylation at CpG islands near the repeat region. CpG islands are CG-rich sequences that are tightly regulated by methylation and are often found at gene enhancer or insulator elements in the genome. Methylation of CpG islands can inhibit binding of the transcriptional regulator CTCF, resulting in a closed chromatin state and gene down regulation. The downregulation of these genes leads to some disease-specific symptoms. Additionally, a genetic and epigenetic interplay is suggested by an effect of methylation on repeat instability, a hallmark of large repeat expansions that leads to increasing disease severity in successive generations. This review will discuss the common epigenetic patterns shared across repeat diseases, how the genetics and epigenetics interact, and how this could be involved in disease manifestation. It also discusses the currently available stem cell and mouse models, which frequently do not recapitulate epigenetic patterns observed in human disease, and propose alternative strategies to study the role of epigenetics in repeat diseases.

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