Professional Education

  • Bachelor of Science, Carleton University (2007)
  • Doctor of Philosophy, McGill University (2013)

Current Research and Scholarly Interests

I am interested in epigenetic mechanisms and how they respond to environmental changes (social, physical, seasonal, etc.). I am currently exploring this topic and its relation to social status/dominance in african cichlids regarding behavior and neuroepigenetics.

Additionally, I consult for and operate Thwacke, a science consultancy for the entertainment industry.

Lab Affiliations

All Publications

  • Epigenetic variation in the Egfr gene generates quantitative variation in a complex trait in ants. Nature communications Alvarado, S., Rajakumar, R., Abouheif, E., Szyf, M. 2015; 6: 6513


    Complex quantitative traits, like size and behaviour, are a pervasive feature of natural populations. Quantitative trait variation is the product of both genetic and environmental factors, yet little is known about the mechanisms through which their interaction generates this variation. Epigenetic processes, such as DNA methylation, can mediate gene-by-environment interactions during development to generate discrete phenotypic variation. We therefore investigated the developmental role of DNA methylation in generating continuous size variation of workers in an ant colony, a key trait associated with division of labour. Here we show that, in the carpenter ant Camponotus floridanus, global (genome-wide) DNA methylation indirectly regulates quantitative methylation of the conserved cell-signalling gene Epidermal growth factor receptor to generate continuous size variation of workers. DNA methylation can therefore generate quantitative variation in a complex trait by quantitatively regulating the transcription of a gene. This mechanism, alongside genetic variation, may determine the phenotypic possibilities of loci for generating quantitative trait variation in natural populations.

    View details for DOI 10.1038/ncomms7513

    View details for PubMedID 25758336

  • The dynamic nature of DNA methylation: a role in response to social and seasonal variation. Integrative and comparative biology Alvarado, S., Fernald, R. D., Storey, K. B., Szyf, M. 2014; 54 (1): 68-76


    An organism's ability to adapt to its environment depends on its ability to regulate and maintain tissue specific, temporal patterns of gene transcription in response to specific environmental cues. Epigenetic mechanisms are responsible for many of the intricacies of a gene's regulation that alter expression patterns without affecting the genetic sequence. In particular, DNA methylation has been shown to have an important role in regulating early development and in some human diseases. Within these domains, DNA methylation has been extensively characterized over the past 60 years, but the discovery of its role in regulating behavioral outcomes has led to renewed interest in its potential roles in animal behavior and phenotypic plasticity. The conservation of DNA methylation across the animal kingdom suggests a possible role in the plasticity of genomic responses to environmental cues in natural environments. Here, we review the historical context for the study of DNA methylation, its function and mechanisms, and provide examples of gene/environment interactions in response to social and seasonal cues. Finally, we discuss useful tools to interrogate and dissect the function of DNA methylation in non-model organisms.

    View details for DOI 10.1093/icb/icu034

    View details for PubMedID 24813708

  • Methylated DNA Binding Domain Protein 2 (MBD2) Coordinately Silences Gene Expression through Activation of the MicroRNA hsa-mir-496 Promoter in Breast Cancer Cell Line PLOS ONE Alvarado, S., Wyglinski, J., Suderman, M., Andrews, S. A., Szyf, M. 2013; 8 (10)


    Methylated DNA binding protein 2 (MBD2) binds methylated promoters and suppresses transcription in cis through recruitment of a chromatin modification repressor complex. We show here a new mechanism of action for MBD2: suppression of gene expression indirectly through activation of microRNA hsa-mir-496. Overexpression of MBD2 in breast epithelial cell line MCF-10A results in induced expression and demethylation of hsa-mir-496 while depletion of MBD2 in a human breast cancer cell lines MCF-7 and MDA-MB231 results in suppression of hsa-mir-496. Activation of hsa-mir-496 by MBD2 is associated with silencing of several of its target genes while depletion of MBD2 leads to induction of hsa-mir-496 target genes. Depletion of hsa-mir-496 by locked nucleic acid (LNA) antisense oligonucleotide leads to activation of these target genes in MBD2 overexpressing cells supporting that hsa-mir-496 is mediating in part the effects of MBD2 on gene expression. We demonstrate that MBD2 binds the promoter of hsa-mir-496 in MCF-10A, MCF-7 and MDA-MB-231 cells and that it activates an in vitro methylated hsa-mir-496 promoter driving a CG-less luciferase reporter in a transient transfection assay. The activation of hsa-mir-496 is associated with reduced methylation of the promoter. Taken together these results describe a novel cascade for gene regulation by DNA methylation whereby activation of a methylated microRNA by MBD2 that is associated with loss of methylation triggers repression of downstream targets.

    View details for DOI 10.1371/journal.pone.0074009

    View details for Web of Science ID 000326270700001

    View details for PubMedID 24204564

  • Peripheral nerve injury is accompanied by chronic transcriptome-wide changes in the mouse prefrontal cortex MOLECULAR PAIN Alvarado, S., Tajerian, M., Millecamps, M., Suderman, M., Stone, L. S., Szyf, M. 2013; 9


    Peripheral nerve injury can have long-term consequences including pain-related manifestations, such as hypersensitivity to cutaneous stimuli, as well as affective and cognitive disturbances, suggesting the involvement of supraspinal mechanisms. Changes in brain structure and cortical function associated with many chronic pain conditions have been reported in the prefrontal cortex (PFC). The PFC is implicated in pain-related co-morbidities such as depression, anxiety and impaired emotional decision-making ability. We recently reported that this region is subject to significant epigenetic reprogramming following peripheral nerve injury, and normalization of pain-related structural, functional and epigenetic abnormalities in the PFC are all associated with effective pain reduction. In this study, we used the Spared Nerve Injury (SNI) model of neuropathic pain to test the hypothesis that peripheral nerve injury triggers persistent long-lasting changes in gene expression in the PFC, which alter functional gene networks, thus providing a possible explanation for chronic pain associated behaviors.SNI or sham surgery where performed in male CD1 mice at three months of age. Six months after injury, we performed transcriptome-wide sequencing (RNAseq), which revealed 1147 differentially regulated transcripts in the PFC in nerve-injured vs. control mice. Changes in gene expression occurred across a number of functional gene clusters encoding cardinal biological processes as revealed by Ingenuity Pathway Analysis. Significantly altered biological processes included neurological disease, skeletal muscular disorders, behavior, and psychological disorders. Several of the changes detected by RNAseq were validated by RT-QPCR and included transcripts with known roles in chronic pain and/or neuronal plasticity including the NMDA receptor (glutamate receptor, ionotropic, NMDA; grin1), neurite outgrowth (roundabout 3; robo3), gliosis (glial fibrillary acidic protein; gfap), vesicular release (synaptotagmin 2; syt2), and neuronal excitability (voltage-gated sodium channel, type I; scn1a).This study used an unbiased approach to document long-term alterations in gene expression in the brain following peripheral nerve injury. We propose that these changes are maintained as a memory of an insult that is temporally and spatially distant from the initial injury.

    View details for DOI 10.1186/1744-8069-9-21

    View details for Web of Science ID 000318881900001

    View details for PubMedID 23597049

  • Peripheral Nerve Injury Is Associated with Chronic, Reversible Changes in Global DNA Methylation in the Mouse Prefrontal Cortex PLOS ONE Tajerian, M., Alvarado, S., Millecamps, M., Vachon, P., Crosby, C., Bushnell, M. C., Szyf, M., Stone, L. S. 2013; 8 (1)


    Changes in brain structure and cortical function are associated with many chronic pain conditions including low back pain and fibromyalgia. The magnitude of these changes correlates with the duration and/or the intensity of chronic pain. Most studies report changes in common areas involved in pain modulation, including the prefrontal cortex (PFC), and pain-related pathological changes in the PFC can be reversed with effective treatment. While the mechanisms underlying these changes are unknown, they must be dynamically regulated. Epigenetic modulation of gene expression in response to experience and environment is reversible and dynamic. Epigenetic modulation by DNA methylation is associated with abnormal behavior and pathological gene expression in the central nervous system. DNA methylation might also be involved in mediating the pathologies associated with chronic pain in the brain. We therefore tested a) whether alterations in DNA methylation are found in the brain long after chronic neuropathic pain is induced in the periphery using the spared nerve injury modal and b) whether these injury-associated changes are reversible by interventions that reverse the pathologies associated with chronic pain. Six months following peripheral nerve injury, abnormal sensory thresholds and increased anxiety were accompanied by decreased global methylation in the PFC and the amygdala but not in the visual cortex or the thalamus. Environmental enrichment attenuated nerve injury-induced hypersensitivity and reversed the changes in global PFC methylation. Furthermore, global PFC methylation correlated with mechanical and thermal sensitivity in neuropathic mice. In summary, induction of chronic pain by peripheral nerve injury is associated with epigenetic changes in the brain. These changes are detected long after the original injury, at a long distance from the site of injury and are reversible with environmental manipulation. Changes in brain structure and cortical function that are associated with chronic pain conditions may therefore be mediated by epigenetic mechanisms.

    View details for DOI 10.1371/journal.pone.0055259

    View details for Web of Science ID 000315211500068

    View details for PubMedID 23383129

  • DNA methylation of SPARC and chronic low back pain MOLECULAR PAIN Tajerian, M., Alvarado, S., Millecamps, M., Dashwood, T., Anderson, K. M., Haglund, L., Ouellet, J., Szyf, M., Stone, L. S. 2011; 7


    The extracellular matrix protein SPARC (Secreted Protein, Acidic, Rich in Cysteine) has been linked to degeneration of the intervertebral discs and chronic low back pain (LBP). In humans, SPARC protein expression is decreased as a function of age and disc degeneration. In mice, inactivation of the SPARC gene results in the development of accelerated age-dependent disc degeneration concurrent with age-dependent behavioral signs of chronic LBP.DNA methylation is the covalent modification of DNA by addition of methyl moieties to cytosines in DNA. DNA methylation plays an important role in programming of gene expression, including in the dynamic regulation of changes in gene expression in response to aging and environmental signals. We tested the hypothesis that DNA methylation down-regulates SPARC expression in chronic LBP in pre-clinical models and in patients with chronic LBP.Our data shows that aging mice develop anatomical and behavioral signs of disc degeneration and back pain, decreased SPARC expression and increased methylation of the SPARC promoter. In parallel, we show that human subjects with back pain exhibit signs of disc degeneration and increased methylation of the SPARC promoter. Methylation of either the human or mouse SPARC promoter silences its activity in transient transfection assays.This study provides the first evidence that DNA methylation of a single gene plays a role in chronic pain in humans and animal models. This has important implications for understanding the mechanisms involved in chronic pain and for pain therapy.

    View details for DOI 10.1186/1744-8069-7-65

    View details for Web of Science ID 000295594100001

    View details for PubMedID 21867537