Is epigenetic inheritance a lost cause?

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Epigenetic tags may not be passed from generation to generation, but research is unveiling new avenues to assess disease and the aging process.

What there is to know:

  • About a decade ago, research seemed to show evidence for transgenerational epigenetic inheritance, or the idea that the marks on genes that people acquire during disasters, like starvation, could be passed on to their children.

  • However, there has not been convincing evidence overall that the epigenome is passed from generation to generation, at least in humans; now epigeneticists view the epigenome as a means by which genes adapt to unpredictable environments rather than a means by which the environment acts directly on genes.

  • Rather, the research focuses on studying epigenetic marks like DNA methylation to learn more about the pathophysiology of disease and to help create epigenetic clocks that can estimate the biological age of different tissues in the body.

  • Epigeneticist Jonathan Mill, PhD, is working with a team from the University of Exeter in the UK to create an epigenetic clock in the brain. They identified differences in DNA methylation between individuals with and without dementia, which could be used to guide diagnostics and treatment.

  • Epigenome mapping is also becoming more accessible, and technology from Oxford Nanopore Technologies can measure methyl bases in addition to the four nucleotides of DNA so that genome sequencing and epigenome sequencing can be performed simultaneously.

This is a summary of the article “Epigenetics, the little-known science that could shed new light on aging”, published by The Guardian October 10. The full article is available at theguardian.com.

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