A growing body of evidence suggests that environmental stresses can cause changes in gene expression that are transmitted from parents to their offspring, making “epigenetics” a hot topic. Epigenetic modifications do not affect the DNA sequence of genes, but change how the DNA is packaged and how genes are expressed. Now, a study by scientists at UC Santa Cruz shows how epigenetic memory can be passed across generations and from cell to cell during development.
The study, published September 19 in Science, focused on one well studied epigenetic modification–the methylation of a DNA packaging protein called histone H3. Methylation of a particular amino acid (lysine 27) in histone H3 is known to turn off or “repress” genes, and this epigenetic mark is found in all multicellular animals, from humans to the tiny roundworm C. elegans that was used in this study. ”There has been ongoing debate about whether the methylation mark can be passed on through cell divisions and across generations, and we’ve now shown that it is,” said corresponding author Susan Strome, a professor of molecular, cell and developmental biology at UC Santa Cruz.
Strome noted that the findings in this study of transmission of histone methylation in C. elegans have important implications in other organisms, even though different organisms use the repressive marker that was studied to regulate different genes during different aspects of development. All animals use the same enzyme to create the same methylation mark as a signal for gene repression, and her colleagues who study epigenetics in mice and humans are excited about the new findings, Strome said.