Recent progress towards understanding the role of DNA methylation in human placental development.
Epigenetic modifications, and particularly DNA methylation, have been studied in many tissues, both healthy and diseased, and across numerous developmental stages. The placenta is the only organ that has a transient life of 9 months and undergoes rapid growth and dynamic structural and functional changes across gestation. Additionally, the placenta is unique because although developing within the mother, its genome is identical to that of the foetus. Given these distinctive characteristics, it is not surprising that the epigenetic landscape affecting placental gene expression may be different to that in other healthy tissues. However, the role of epigenetic modifications, and particularly DNA methylation, in placental development remains largely unknown. Of particular interest is the fact that the placenta is the most hypomethylated human tissue and is characterized by the presence of large partially methylated domains (PMDs) containing silenced genes. Moreover, how and why the placenta is hypomethylated and what role DNA methylation plays in regulating placental gene expression across gestation are poorly understood. We review genome-wide DNA methylation studies in the human placenta and highlight that the different cell types that make up the placenta have very different DNA methylation profiles. Summarizing studies on DNA methylation in the placenta and its relationship with pregnancy complications are difficult due to the limited number of studies available for comparison. To understand the key steps in placental development and hence what may be perturbed in pregnancy complications requires large-scale genome-wide DNA methylation studies coupled with transcriptome analyses. © 2016 The authors.DOI: 10.1530/REP-16-0014