Extensive de novo activity stabilizes epigenetic inheritance of CG methylation in Arabidopsis transposons

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Cytosine methylation within CG dinucleotides (mCG) can be epigenetically inherited over many generations. Such inheritance is thought to be mediated by a semiconservative mechanism that produces binary present/absent methylation patterns. However, we show here that, in Arabidopsis thaliana h1ddm1 mutants, intermediate heterochromatic mCG is stably inherited across many generations and is quantitatively associated with transposon expression. We develop a mathematical model that estimates the rates of semiconservative maintenance failure and de novo methylation at each transposon, demonstrating that mCG can be stably inherited at any level via a dynamic balance of these activities. We find that DRM2the core methyltransferase of the RNA-directed DNA methylation pathwaycatalyzes most of the heterochromatic de novo mCG, with de novo rates orders of magnitude higher than previously thought, whereas chromomethylases make smaller contributions. Our results demonstrate that stable epigenetic inheritance of mCG in plant heterochromatin is enabled by extensive de novo methylation.