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Epigenetics refers to changes in traits that are not due to changes in DNA sequence. It is a growing field in biology, as we come to understand more and more how gene expression is not controlled purely at the sequence level.

 There are many ways to alter gene expression without directly changing the DNA sequence being affected. For example, DNA is packaged into a DNA:RNA:protein complex called chromatin. Chromatin structure can be altered to change how tightly packed the complex is. The more tightly packed the chromatin, the more inaccessible the DNA is to the molecular machinery required for transcription, meaning gene expression is decreased. Very highly expressed genes will often be associated with very loosely packed, highly accessible chromatin.

 

The accessibility of DNA can be altered by epigenetic mechanisms
Epigenetic modifications include:

A key feature of epigenetic changes is that they are heritable, with epigenetic marks being carried forward through cell divisions or even from one generation to the next. For example, research suggests that the epigenetic state of your DNA could be affected by your grandparents' lifestyle. Understanding how epigenetics contributes to trait variation adds yet another layer of complexity to what ultimately decides what phenotype an organism displays.

Extracting epigenetic information from cells

In the same way that we can learn genetic information via sequencing, there are several methods available to investigate the epigenetic state of DNA:

 

What do you think?

About the authors

View full profile Jake Curtis from London

I am a student at Cambridge University who has just finished a BA in Natural Sciences, focusing on Genetics in my third year. I am now studying for an MSc in Systems Biology.

View full profile Hari Raj Singh from Munich

I am a life science researcher with a strong belief that the 21st century is going to be the century of biology touching every aspect of modern human life. I am very excited about the prospects of the new and highly consequential field of synthetic biology. I believe in the power of innovation and that the innovation in life science in particular will positively impact every aspect of human endeavour in the coming decades. I also think that “Synthetic biology driven global bio-economy is our real genuine chance on alleviating global poverty”. This is our moment as life science researchers to provide sustainable growth engines in the form of life science driven disruptive-innovations fueled by our desire to better understand the biological systems and our ability to re-purpose the biological systems; to ultimately bring a paradigm shift in the economic model, what I call the bio-economic model. In future, I am looking forward to the opportunities in this direction with a focus on bottom-up disruptive innovation, which would require very close collaborative efforts from academia, industry and entrepreneurs and a bit of paradigm shift in government policies towards catalyzing the same. I have been and i continue to develop my personal and professional competencies towards creating these aforementioned opportunities, which would help me to contribute and move forward this broader vision that I have and that I very strongly believe in. I think engineering approaches to the understanding of the biological systems that the field of synthetic biology promises to offer is not only going to enhance our understanding in the basic biological research and life science innovation but also it will fuel advances in Physics, Mathematics, Chemistry and Engineering. I am excited about the possibilities and want to be part of it.

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