Early exposure to xenoestrogens may predispose to breast cancer risk later in adult life. It is likely that long-lived, self-regenerating epithelial progenitor cells are more susceptible to these exposure injuries over time and transmit the injured memory through epigenetic mechanisms to their differentiated progeny. Here, we used progenitor-containing mammospheres as an in vitro exposure model to study this epigenetic effect. Expression profiling identified that, relative to control cells, 9.1% of microRNAs (82 of 898 loci) were altered in epithelial progeny derived from mammospheres exposed to a synthetic estrogen, diethylstilbestrol. Repressive chromatin marks, trimethyl Lys27 of histone H3 (H3K27me3) and dimethyl Lys9 of histone H3 (H3K9me2), were found at a down-regulated locus, miR-9-3, in epithelial cells preexposed to diethylstilbestrol. This was accompanied by recruitment of DNA methyltransferase 1 that caused an aberrant increase in DNA methylation of its promoter CpG island in mammosphere-derived epithelial cells on diethylstilbestrol preexposure. Functional analyses suggest that miR-9-3 plays a role in the p53-related apoptotic pathway. Epigenetic silencing of this gene, therefore, reduces this cellular function and promotes the proliferation of breast cancer cells. Promoter hypermethylation of this microRNA may be a hallmark for early breast cancer development, and restoration of its expression by epigenetic and microRNA-based therapies is another viable option for future treatment of this disease.
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