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Mood-Altering Messenger Goes Nuclear

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Serotonin is best known for its role as a chemical messenger in the brain, helping to regulate mood, appetite, sleep, and many other functions. It exerts these influences by binding to its receptor on the surface of neural cells. But startling new work suggests the impact of serotonin does not end there: the molecule also can enter a cell’s nucleus and directly switch on genes.

While much more study is needed, this is a potentially groundbreaking discovery. Not only could it have implications for managing depression and other mood disorders, it may also open new avenues for treating substance abuse and neurodegenerative diseases.

To understand how serotonin contributes to switching genes on and off, a lesson on epigenetics is helpful. Keep in mind that the DNA instruction book of all cells is essentially the same, yet the chapters of the book are read in very different ways by cells in different parts of the body. Epigenetics refers to chemical marks on DNA itself or on the protein “spools” called histones that package DNA. These marks influence the activity of genes in a particular cell without changing the underlying DNA sequence, switching them on and off or acting as “volume knobs” to turn the activity of particular genes up or down.

The marks include various chemical groups—including acetyl, phosphate, or methyl—which are added at precise locations to those spool-like proteins called histones. The addition of such groups alters the accessibility of the DNA for copying into messenger RNA and producing needed proteins.

In the study reported in Nature, researchers led by Ian Maze and postdoctoral researcher Lorna Farrelly, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York, followed a hunch that serotonin molecules might also get added to histones [1]. There had been hints that it might be possible. For instance, earlier evidence suggested that inside cells, serotonin could enter the nucleus. There also was evidence that serotonin could attach to proteins outside the nucleus in a process called serotonylation.

These data begged the question: Is serotonylation important in the brain and/or other living tissues that produce serotonin in vivo? After a lot of hard work, the answer now appears to be yes.

These NIH-supported researchers found that serotonylation does indeed occur in the cell nucleus. They also identified a particular enzyme that directly attaches serotonin molecules to histone proteins. With serotonin attached, DNA loosens on its spool, allowing for increased gene expression.

The team found that histone serotonylation takes place in serotonin-producing human neurons derived from induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs). They also observed this process occurring in the brains of developing mice.

In fact, the researchers found evidence of those serotonin marks in many parts of the body. They are especially prevalent in the brain and gut, where serotonin also is produced in significant amounts. Those marks consistently correlate with areas of active gene expression.

The serotonin mark often occurs on histones in combination with a second methyl mark. The researchers suggest that this double marking of histones might help to further reinforce an active state of gene expression.

This work demonstrates that serotonin can directly influence gene expression in a manner that’s wholly separate from its previously known role in transmitting chemical messages from one neuron to the next. And, there are likely other surprises in store.

The newly discovered role of serotonin in modifying gene expression may contribute significantly to our understanding of mood disorders and other psychiatric conditions with known links to serotonin signals, suggesting potentially new targets for therapeutic intervention. But for now, this fundamental discovery raises many more intriguing questions than it answers.

Science is full of surprises, and this paper is definitely one of them. Will this kind of histone marking occur with other chemical messengers, such as dopamine and acetylcholine? This unexpected discovery now allows us to track serotonin and perhaps some of the brain’s other chemical messengers to see what they might be doing in the cell nucleus and whether this information might one day help in treating the millions of Americans with mood and behavioral disorders.


[1] Histone serotonylation is a permissive modification that enhances TFIID binding to H3K4me3. Farrelly LA, Thompson RE, Zhao S, Lepack AE, Lyu Y, Bhanu NV, Zhang B, Loh YE, Ramakrishnan A, Vadodaria KC, Heard KJ, Erikson G, Nakadai T, Bastle RM, Lukasak BJ, Zebroski H 3rd, Alenina N, Bader M, Berton O, Roeder RG, Molina H, Gage FH, Shen L, Garcia BA, Li H, Muir TW, Maze I. Nature. 2019 Mar 13. [Epub ahead of print]


Any Mood Disorder (National Institute of Mental Health/NIH)

Drugs, Brains, and Behavior: The Science of Addiction (National Institute on Drug Abuse/NIH)

Epigenomics (National Human Genome Research Institute/NIH)

Maze Lab (Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York, NY)

NIH Support: National Institute on Drug Abuse; National Institute of Mental Health; National Institute of General Medical Sciences; National Cancer Institute

Creative Minds: A New Way to Look at Cancer

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Bradley Bernstein

Bradley Bernstein

Inside our cells, strands of DNA wrap around spool-like histone proteins to form a DNA-histone complex called chromatin. Bradley Bernstein, a pathologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard University, and Broad Institute, has always been fascinated by this process. What interests him is the fact that an approximately 6-foot-long strand of DNA can be folded and packed into orderly chromatin structures inside a cell nucleus that’s just 0.0002 inch wide.

Bernstein’s fascination with DNA packaging led to the recent major discovery that, when chromatin misfolds in brain cells, it can activate a gene associated with the cancer glioma [1]. This suggested a new cancer-causing mechanism that does not require specific DNA mutations. Now, with a 2016 NIH Director’s Pioneer Award, Bernstein is taking a closer look at how misfolded and unstable chromatin can drive tumor formation, and what that means for treating cancer.

Creative Minds: Using Machine Learning to Understand Genome Function

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Anshul Kundaje

Anshul Kundaje / Credit: Nalini Kartha

Science has always fascinated Anshul Kundaje, whether it was biology, physics, or chemistry. When he left his home country of India to pursue graduate studies in electrical engineering at Columbia University, New York, his plan was to focus on telecommunications and computer networks. But a course in computational genomics during his first semester showed him he could follow his interest in computing without giving up his love for biology.

Now an assistant professor of genetics and computer science at Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA, Kundaje has received a 2016 NIH Director’s New Innovator Award to explore not just how the human genome sequence encodes function, but also why it functions in the way that it does. Kundaje even envisions a time when it might be possible to use sophisticated computational approaches to predict the genomic basis of many human diseases.

Creative Minds: Building the RNA Toolbox

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Caption: Genetically identical mice. The Agouti gene is active in the yellow mouse and inactive in the brown mouse.
Credit: Dana Dolinoy, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and Randy Jirtle, Duke University, Durham, NC

Step inside the lab of Dana Dolinoy at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and you’re sure to hear conversations that include the rather strange word “agouti” (uh-goo-tee). In this context, it’s a name given to a strain of laboratory mice that arose decades ago from a random mutation in the Agouti gene, which is normally expressed only transiently in hair follicles. The mutation causes the gene to be turned on, or expressed, continuously in all cell types, producing mice that are yellow, obese, and unusually prone to developing diabetes and cancer. As it turns out, these mutant mice and the gene they have pointed to are more valuable than ever today because they offer Dolinoy and other researchers an excellent model for studying the rapidly emerging field of epigenomics.

The genome of the mouse, just as for the human, is the complete DNA instruction book; it contains the coding information for building the proteins that carry out a variety of functions in a cell. But modifications to the DNA determine its function, and these are collectively referred to as the epigenome. The epigenome is made up of chemical tags and proteins that can attach to the DNA and direct such actions as turning genes on or off, thereby controlling the production of proteins in particular cells. These tags have different patterns in each cell type, helping to explain, for example, why a kidney and a skin cell can behave so differently when they share the same DNA.

Some types of genes, including Agouti, are particularly vulnerable to epigenomic effects. In fact, Dolinoy has discovered that exposing normal, wild-type (brown) mice to certain chemicals and dietary factors during pregnancy can switch on the Agouti gene in their developing offspring, turning their coats yellow and their health poor. Dolinoy says these experiments raise much larger questions: If researchers discover populations of humans that have been exposed to lifestyle or environmental factors that modify their epigenomes in ways that may possibly contribute to risk for certain diseases, can the modification be passed on to their children and grandchildren (referred to as transgenerational epigenetic inheritance, a controversial topic)? If so, how can we develop the high-precision tools needed to better understand and perhaps even reduce such risks? The University of Michigan researcher received a 2015 NIH Director’s Transformative Research Award to undertake that challenge.

Flipping a Genetic Switch on Obesity?

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Illustration of a DNA switchWhen weight loss is the goal, the equation seems simple enough: consume fewer calories and burn more of them exercising. But for some people, losing and keeping off the weight is much more difficult for reasons that can include a genetic component. While there are rare genetic causes of extreme obesity, the strongest common genetic contributor discovered so far is a variant found in an intron of the FTO gene. Variations in this untranslated region of the gene have been tied to differences in body mass and a risk of obesity [1]. For the one in six people of European descent born with two copies of the risk variant, the consequence is carrying around an average of an extra 7 pounds [2].

Now, NIH-funded researchers reporting in The New England Journal of Medicine [3] have figured out how this gene influences body weight. The answer is not, as many had suspected, in regions of the brain that control appetite, but in the progenitor cells that produce white and beige fat. The researchers found that the risk variant is part of a larger genetic circuit that determines whether our bodies burn or store fat. This discovery may yield new approaches to intervene in obesity with treatments designed to change the way fat cells handle calories.

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