While the discovery of the genetic code led researchers
to believe that our physical appearance and
susceptibility to certain diseases were ‘hard-wired”
within our DNA, exciting advances in our understanding of
the human genome have shown that this is not the entire story.
Scientists now know that both biological and environmental
factors play an important role in how we develop and age
and even in determining our risk of diseases like cancer,
cardiovascular disease, and type 2 diabetes. This rapidly
emerging area of scientific study is referred to as epigenetics.
Epigenetics (epi — meaning “over” or “on top of”) is the
study of heritable changes in gene expression due to the
DNA being “marked” or modified and not due to changes in
the underlying DNA sequence. Epigenomics is the study of
the global set of epigenetic modifications to a cell’s genetic
To understand the concept of epigenetics, take the analogy
of punctuation in a sentence. The order of words in each of the
following sentences is the same, but with an added comma, the
meaning is altered:
- Let's eat, Grandma!
- Let's eat Grandma!
The same concept holds true regarding the genome. All
of the cells in the body have the same DNA sequence, but
differences in the “punctuation” in certain genes determine
when and how they are turned on (gene activation). It is these
differences in the activation of genes that result in a broad array
of cell types with various functions (i.e., muscle, skin, nerve,
bone, etc.), a process known as differentiation.
The most widely recognized and studied epigenetic
modifications (punctuation marks) occur through the processes
of DNA methylation and histone acetylation (see Figure 1 for
further explanation of these mechanisms). Abnormalities in
epigenetic modifications are now being identified by researchers
as factors in human diseases such as obesity, mental illness,
and cancer. Understanding how and why they occur may help
researchers to improve upon methods of disease detection,
treatment, and prevention.
- DNA methylation is an example of an epigenetic phenomenon.
- It is a biological process where a methyl group (CH3) is added to a cytosine
nucleotide in DNA.
- In general, hypermethylation (over-methylation) is associated with gene silencing.
- In general, hypomethylation (under-methylation) is associated with gene activation.
- Histone acetylation is another example of an epigenetic phenomenon.
- It is a biological process where an acetyl group (C2H3O) is added to the tail of a
- The addition of the acetyl group (acetylation) causes the DNA/histone complex to
relax allowing the gene to be made into a protein.
- Removal of the acetyl group (deacetylation) causes the DNA/histone complex to
constrict thereby preventing the production of protein from the DNA.
- Other histone modifications include methylation, ubiquitination, formylation,
sumoylation, and phosphorylation.
Figure 1: Mechanisms of epigenetics. Figure designed by Anne Deschamps and Corporate Press.
Nurture & Nature
To learn more about the effects of epigenetic changes,
scientists often turn to monozygotic (identical) twins because of
their matching DNA sequences. Although monozygotic twins
share a very similar epigenetic
profile at birth, scientists
discovered that variations in
their epigenome accumulate
over their lifetime (Figure 2).
In fact, it has been shown
that the greatest epigenomic
variation occurs in twins who
were raised apart.
Figure 2: At age three,
the epigenetic markers on
chromosome 17 of identical
twins are quite similar (shown in
yellow); however, a comparison
between 50-year-old twins shows
significant differences in the
pattern of epigenetic markers
(shown in red and green). Image
from Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A.
2005 July 26; 102(30): 10604–
10609. Copyright (2005) National
Academy of Sciences, U.S.A.
These findings strongly suggest
on an individual’s epigenomic
profile and may explain why
one twin becomes more susceptible
to disease or ages faster
than the other. For example,
among monozygotic twins,
a diagnosis of schizophrenia
(SZ) for both twins occurs
only 40-50 percent of the time.
Researchers found that while discordant twins (i.e., one twin has
SZ and the other does not) had similar genomic abnormalities,
they had significant differences in the epigenetic pattern of
one of the genes linked to SZ. This means that both twins are
predisposed to SZ; however, experiencing certain environmental
factors, such as psychosocial stressors during early childhood,
can increase the risk of developing SZ to the twin exposed to
In addition to the epigenetic changes that occur throughout a
person’s lifetime, researchers are also beginning to understand
how the fetal environment can alter the epigenome and affect
gene expression well into adulthood. To further explore
this process, Randy Jirtle, PhD, and his colleagues at Duke
University, used viable yellow agouti mice to test how bisphenol
A (BPA), the chemical found in some plastics, affects the
epigenome and later-in-life development. Normally, the agouti
gene is kept in the “off position” through DNA methylation
and other epigenetic marks like histone methylation, giving a
mouse its brown coat and lean appearance. When the DNA is
under-methylated, the agouti gene is “turned on,” resulting in a
yellow coat color, adult-onset obesity, and a tendency to develop
diabetes and cancer.
Dr. Jirtle exposed pregnant female mice to BPA, which
resulted in litters with a significant number of yellow and obese
offspring. Further research on these offspring demonstrated that
the agouti gene was under-methylated, suggesting that BPA
alters an organism’s epigenome. By introducing compounds
that increase DNA methylation (folic acid and vitamin B) along
with the BPA into the diets of some of the pregnant mice, the
effects of BPA were counteracted, and more offspring were born
brown and lean (Figure 3). This was an exciting discovery for the researchers and a potentially important finding in our quest to
treat and prevent disease.
Mapping the Epigenome
The recent availability of enhanced genome sequencing
technologies has allowed researchers to study epigenetic
variation much more effectively and efficiently. With this
technology, research funded by the National Institutes of Health
(NIH) has focused on the basic science task of characterizing
or “mapping” the occurrence and possible functions of these
epigenetic modifications on several types of human cells.
Launched in 2008, the NIH Roadmap Epigenomics Program
has developed a public database of epigenomes with the goal
of identifying specific epigenetic alternations on the genome
that could help detect certain diseases at much earlier stages.
To date, over 60 epigenomes have been mapped and are
helping scientists to better understand how epigenetic
abnormalities are linked to genetic diseases.
Figure 3: Despite their differing
color and body mass, these
one year-old female mice have
identical DNA sequences. Maternal
dietary supplementation with
a methyl donor such as folic
acid shifts the coat color of the
offspring from yellow to brown and
reduces the incidence of obesity,
diabetes, and cancer. Image courtesy of Dana Dolinoy, PhD,
University of Michigan, and Randy Jirtle, PhD, Duke University.
Confronting The Cancer Epigenome
DNA hypermethylation (silencing) of genes that suppress
tumor growth is one of the most common epigenetic alterations
observed in cancer. Realizing that some of these alterations
are reversible has led researchers to seek therapies that restore
the normal behavior of the epigenome and stop tumor growth.
Two FDA-approved therapeutics, azacitidine and decitabine,
which decrease DNA methylation, have been used to treat blood
disorders called myelodysplastic syndromes by “reactivating”
the tumor suppressor genes. Another class of FDA-approved
epigenetic drugs, called histone deacetylase inhibitors, has been
effective in treating a type of lymphoma. Both classes of drugs
have shown some encouraging results and continue to be studied
in clinical trials. Scientists are also testing whether epigenetic
drugs could be used in combination with other conventional
treatments, like chemotherapy, to increase therapeutic effects.
There is still much to be discovered about the vast field of
epigenetics. However, each new discovery offers the potential
to exercise greater control of our health than we ever thought
Author, Allison P. Lea, MA
Managing Editor, Anne M. Deschamps, PhD
Horizons in Bioscience is a product of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) and describes scientific discoveries on the brink of clinical application. These one page documents are intended to supplement our longer series of illustrated articles, Breakthroughs in Bioscience. Free hardcopies may be ordered and electronic versions of the full series may be found on our website: www.faseb.org
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