What are You Doing to Influence Your Epigenome?

Jan 09, 2012

 

Ever wonder how identical twins can have subtle differences?  It's all about epigenetics, or how our environment can alter the way our genes are expressed.  Yes, gene expression is based on more than just DNA sequence.  Diet, lifestyle and other environmental conditions can alter what is called the epigenome ( epi = Greek for "Over or Outer"), or changes to the genome such as DNA methylation that do not alter the nucleotide sequence.   The Lab Man talked to Bill Janzen, Director of Assay Development and Profiling (and outgoing SLAS Board member) about the topic. 

Bill points out that historical examples of epigenetic effects have been noted in environmental events such as the Dutch famine of 1944.  Children of women pregnant during this famine were more susceptible to diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease and other health problems.  Further study showed these children to have less DNA methylation of the IGF2 gene than seen in their siblings.  Or, for those of us who are cat people, it's interesting to note that epigenetics influenced by the uteral and postnatal nurturing environment of kittens can play a role in adult cat fur color and pattern. 

The understanding of epigenetics' role in disease or the potential for serving as a biomarker for certain disease states is naturally of interest in drug discovery.  Epigenetic changes are thought to be tied to numerous heritable mental retardation syndromes and various forms of cancer.  Academic groups such as those at UNC are busy generating small molecule probes that implicate or inhibit the enzymes that influence epigenetic gene modifications, such as methylation.  This will help them better understand how such gene modifications relate to cellular and organism phenotypes. 

Bill emphasizes that epigenetic mechanisms and effects are still not well understood and therefore it's an area of investigation well suited to academic research.   It's too early for the drug discovery industry to focus on developing drugs related to these targets, but they are very interested in working with academia to understand more.  One such effort is the Structural Genomics Consortium, a public-private partnership supporting the discovery of new medicines through open access research.   

To learn more about such collaborative efforts, plan to attend the session at SLAS2012 entitled "Bridging the Valley of Death; How Can Academia and Pharma Best Work Together," on Monday, February 6. 

Also read more about epigenetics at JBS and at ELN.

 

Until Next Time,

 

Domo Arigato, Mr. Roboto!

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