Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
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 . 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.
 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