Of the various molecular regulatory mechanisms that may be used by human trophoblast cells to down-regulate expression of HLA class I genes, we chose to investigate the methylation of DNA, generally associated with inhibition of transcription. We analyzed the methylation status of different HLA class I loci in villous and extravillous cytotrophoblast cells and in vitro-differentiated syncytiotrophoblast, purified from human term placenta, as well as in the human trophoblast-derived JAR and JEG-3 cell lines. We then compared methylation status and transcriptional activity. An inverse relationship was established between JAR and JEG-3: HLA-A, -B, and -G are methylated and repressed in JAR, whereas in JEG-3, HLA-A is methylated and repressed but HLA-B and -G are partially methylated and transcribed. HLA-E is unmethylated and transcribed in both cell lines. Apart from HLA-E, which is always unmethylated and transcribed, no such relationship exists for the other class I loci in trophoblast cells. Whereas nonclassical HLA-G and classical HLA-A and -B class I genes are undermethylated in both cytotrophoblast and syncytiotrophoblast, they are clearly transcribed in the former but minimally transcribed in the latter subpopulation. Thus, the down-regulation of class I gene expression in the in vitro-differentiated syncytiotrophoblast is unlikely to be caused by DNA methylation. Furthermore, there is no detectable expression of any class I molecule at the cell surface of either trophoblast cell subpopulation, suggesting a negative control on translation and/or on the secretory pathway to the plasma membrane.

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