Epigenetics

Epigenetics is the study of heritable phenotype changes that do not involve alterations in the DNA sequence. The Greek prefix epi- in epigenetics implies features that are "on top of" or "in addition to" the traditional genetic basis for inheritance. Epigenetics most often denotes changes that affect gene activity and expression, but can also be used to describe any heritable phenotypic change. Such effects on cellular and physiological phenotypic traits may result from external or environmental factors, or be part of normal development. The standard definition of epigenetics requires these alterations to be heritable in the progeny of either cells or organisms.

The term also refers to the changes themselves: functionally relevant changes to the genome that do not involve a change in the nucleotide sequence. Examples of mechanisms that produce such changes are DNA methylation and histone modification, each of which alters how genes are expressed without altering the underlying DNA sequence. Gene expression can be controlled through the action of repressor proteins that attach to silencer regions of the DNA. These epigenetic changes may last through cell divisions for the duration of the cell's life, and may also last for multiple generations even though they do not involve changes in the underlying DNA sequence of the organism; instead, non-genetic factors cause the organism's genes to behave (or "express themselves") differently.

One example of an epigenetic change in eukaryotic biology is the process of cellular differentiation. During morphogenesis, totipotent stem cells become the various pluripotent cell lines of the embryo, which in turn become fully differentiated cells. In other words, as a single fertilized egg cell - the zygote - continues to divide, the resulting daughter cells change into all the different cell types in an organism, including neurons, muscle cells, epithelium, endothelium of blood vessels, etc., by activating some genes while inhibiting the expression of others.

Historically, some phenomena not necessarily heritable have also been described as epigenetic. For example, the term epigenetic has been used to describe any modification of chromosomal regions, especially histone modifications, whether or not these changes are heritable or associated with a phenotype. The consensus definition now requires a trait to be heritable for it to be considered epigenetic.

The term epigenetics in its contemporary usage emerged in the 1990s, but for some years has been used with somewhat variable meanings. A consensus definition of the concept of epigenetic trait as a "stably heritable phenotype resulting from changes in a chromosome without alterations in the DNA sequence" was formulated at a Cold Spring Harbor meeting in 2008, although alternate definitions that include non-heritable traits are still being used.

From the generic meaning, and the associated adjective epigenetic, British embryologist C. H. Waddington coined the term epigenetics in 1942 as pertaining to epigenesis, in parallel to Valentin Haecker's 'phenogenetics'. Epigenesis in the context of the biology of that period referred to the differentiation of cells from their initial totipotent state during embryonic development.

When Waddington coined the term, the physical nature of genes and their role in heredity was not known. He used it instead as a conceptual model of how genetic components might interact with their surroundings to produce a phenotype; he used the phrase "epigenetic landscape" as a metaphor for biological development. Waddington held that cell fates were established during development in a process he called canalisation much as a marble rolls down to the point of lowest local elevation. Waddington suggested visualising increasing irreversibility of cell type differentiation as ridges rising between the valleys where the marbles (analogous to cells) are travelling.

In recent times, Waddington's notion of the epigenetic landscape has been rigorously formalized in the context of the systems dynamics state approach to the study of cell-fate. Cell-fate determination is predicted to exhibit certain dynamics, such as attractor-convergence (the attractor can be an equilibrium point, limit cycle or strange attractor) or oscillatory.

Robin Holliday defined epigenetics as "the study of the mechanisms of temporal and spatial control of gene activity during the development of complex organisms." Thus, in its broadest sense, epigenetic can be used to describe anything other than DNA sequence that influences the development of an organism.

The similarity of the word to "genetics" has generated many parallel usages. The "epigenome" is a parallel to the word "genome", referring to the overall epigenetic state of a cell, and epigenomics refers to global analyses of epigenetic changes across the entire genome. The phrase "genetic code" has also been adapted the "epigenetic code" has been used to describe the set of epigenetic features that create different phenotypes in different cells from the same underlying DNA sequence. Taken to its extreme, the "epigenetic code" could represent the total state of the cell, with the position of each molecule accounted for in an epigenomic map, a diagrammatic representation of the gene expression, DNA methylation and histone modification status of a particular genomic region. More typically, the term is used in reference to systematic efforts to measure specific, relevant forms of epigenetic information such as the histone code or DNA methylation patterns.

Specific epigenetic processes include paramutation, bookmarking, imprinting, gene silencing, X chromosome inactivation, position effect, DNA methylation reprogramming, transvection, maternal effects, the progress of carcinogenesis, many effects of teratogens, regulation of histone modifications and heterochromatin, and technical limitations affecting parthenogenesis and cloning.

DEFINITIONS OF EPIGENETICS

MOLECULAR BASIS OF EPIGENETICS

MECHANISMS OF EPIGENETICS

EPIGENETICS IN BACTERIA

MEDICINE AND EPIGENETICS

PSYHOLOGY AND PSYCHIATRY OF EPIGENETICS

SCHEDULE OF EVENTS

PROGRAM

EXHIBITORS
SPONSORS

ABSTRACT
SUBMISSIONS

ABOUT OKC

CONTACT

HOME