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Epigenetics May 3, 2010

Posted by zach in Biology, Genetics, Health, Medicine.

Is it possible to find a way to fight a broad spectrum of human disease with a single break through in the in the biomedical world?  The emerging field of epigenetics is trying to lead the way in fighting a variety of human diseases, such as cancer, heart disease, and even neurological disorders.  The field of epigenetics was discovered at the conclusion of the human genome project.  When it was found that humans and chimpanzees genomes only differed by two percent, researchers knew something more than simply sequence differences had to be taking place.   Epigenetics was born, currently researchers are looking into all the mechanisms by which gene expression can be altered due to modifications of the DNA by using methyl groups and acetylation.

Epigenetic has had two major break throughs by showing how modification of the histones and methylation patterns can affect the organisms. The first study was done on pregnant agouti mice.  When there is a cross between two agouti mice the offspring usually comes out as an agouti, but scientist wondered if they changed the mother’s diet by adding meth donors, which could change the offspring phenotype by an epigenetic alteration. When the female agouti mouse was fed a high methyl donor diet the offspring showed a normal phenotype.  This means that there was some alteration at the agouti gene that changed the offspring to silence the agouti phenotype.

The other example of epigenetics in action is studies on monozygous twins (MZ).  Monozygous twins share the same DNA because they come from a single zygote, that divided early in development.  At a young age MZ are very epigenetically similar, but as they age their epigenetic patterns begin to diverge. This divergence is highly dependant on their lifestyle. Epigenetic patterns seem to change more when the two MZ twins experience very different environments in their lifestyles.  This shows that your environment can greatly influence epigenetics which can change your disposition towards disease.

“A Ghost in your genes” is a four-part documentary that explores many aspects of epigenetics and all the possibilities that can come from it.  I really recommend taking the time to watch it.   Give it a chance…you will not be let down.

From this clip you can visually see how HDAC’s function and what is being done to  prevent disease by blocking HDAC.

Epigenetics and HDAC are thought to play a key role in the development of cancer.  The National Cancer Institute agrees and pledged $8.5 million to Oregon State University to explore how diet, epigenetics, and cancer prevention can all be related.  The grant is going towards placebo-controlled human interventions trials on colon and prostate cancer.  In the future, researchers are hoping that there research on HDAC can be generalized to fight a wide range of degenerative disorders.


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