Epigenetics is the part of the genetics that treats changes in gene expression or phenotype that is independent of changes in DNA sequence. Epigenetics is about how DNA is read, and how DNA is expressed. The cell’s state in this respect – that is, its epigenome – can lead to genes reprogramming and therefore is expressed differently than the DNA signal. The epigenome is affected by the external environment (diet, toxins, hormones, etc.), and after four generations of the same environment it becomes hereditary.
Students preparing their research paper on epigenetics have to learn that in multicellular organisms several different cell types develop that give rise to various tissues and organs. This differentiation into different cell types occurs by enabling and disabling genes. When the differentiated cell divides, gene expression is maintained in daughter cells, so-called epigenetic inheritance. Epigenetic mechanisms are influenced by factors such as age, chemicals, drugs, and diet.
Epigenetics is a term that has been defined in various ways, and historically it has been used to describe that which could not be explained by genetics. According to Conrad Waddington, who is considered to have coined the term in 1942, epigenetics aimed to understand how genotype gives rise to phenotype. In this definition, the focus is on epigenetics role in the zygote development where genes interact with each other and the environment to give rise to a phenotype. Gene’s role in heredity was not then known.
Today, epigenetics aims to define heritable changes in phenotype that cannot be explained by mutations in the DNA sequence. This includes the inheritance of epigenetic changes between cells and play an important role in cell differentiation, as well as inheritance between individuals.
Epigenetic changes mainly affect the phenotype of the individual. During the formation of gametes, reprogramming occurs where these changes are deleted and therefore not inherited to the offspring. However, there are a number of cases where epigenetic changes showed up several generations later, so-called trans-generational epigenetic inheritance. For this to happen, it requires that changes occur in the germ cells because the information goes from germ cells to somatic cells, not vice versa, a principle called Weismanns barrier.
Phenotype may be influenced by the environment and then can be passed on to offspring.
Epigenetic modifications can potentially affect an organism’s ability to adapt in the short term leading to a reversible phenotypic variation, where the organism can change phenotype in response to environmental factors. It is debated how much impact epigenetics has had on the evolution.
Vinclozolin is an endocrine substance used as a fungicide. In rats it has been shown that exposure to vinclozolin in a generation has effects in terms of lower fertility in males and pregnancy disorders and increased risk of tumors in females. These effects are visible after several generations, despite the end of exposure.
A study conducted on people showed an association between grandparents’ diet during a specific period of childhood and grandchildren’s mortality. The effects were gender specific. Grandsons of men who starved while growing up were exposed to lower risks of death from cardiovascular disease.
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