Monday, November 12, 2012

FAQ: What is epigenetics and why is it such an exciting field of biology right now?

Epigenetics  is the study of physical changes to the genome that influence gene expression and that can lead to inheritable changes in cells. Basically epigenetics put to rest the argument of nature vs. nurture, it is both.

Specifically epigenetics encompass three changes to the genome:

  • DNA methylation is thought to be involved in silencing regions of DNA so they cannot be transcribed
  • Histone modification (i.e. acetylation, methylation, ubiquitylation, phosphorylation and sumoylation) can lead to histone remodeling, possibly making it easier for transcription 
  • Small Interfering RNA (siRNA) are small fragments of RNA (<30 nucleotides) which can bind to and regulate different promoter regions of DNA. 

The study of epigenetics has led to important understandings of  genetic differences, such as why one identical twin can contract a disease such as lupus, while the other one does not. In addition, epigenetics is allowing us to change the way we view and treat some cancers such as squamous cell carcinoma and liver cancer.

As a consequence new assays are being developed all of the time to study epigenetics. Revisit our Blog in the coming week as we will investigate some of those assays that can be performed on a microplate reader.
Epigenetic mechanisms