In biology, the term epigenetics refers to heritable changes in phenotype (appearance) or gene expression caused by mechanisms other than changes in the underlying DNA sequence. These changes may remain through cell divisions for the remainder of the cell's life and may also last for multiple generations. However, there is no change in the underlying DNA sequence of the organism; instead, non-genetic factors cause the organism's genes to behave (or "express themselves") differently. The best example of epigenetic changes in eukaryotic biology is the process of cellular differentiation. During morphogenesis, totipotent stem cells become the various pluripotent cell lines of the embryo which in turn become fully differentiated cells. In other words, a single fertilized egg cell - the zygote - changes into the many cell types including neurons, muscle cells, epithelium, blood vessels et cetera as it continues to divide. It does so by activating some genes while inhibiting others.
Etymology and definitions
Epigenetics (as in "epigenetic landscape") was coined by C. H. Waddington in 1942 as a portmanteau of the words genetics and epigenesis. Epigenesis is an older word to describe the differentiation of cells from their initial totipotent state in embryonic development. When Waddington coined the term the physical nature of genes and their role in heredity was not known; he used it as a conceptual model of how genes might interact with their surroundings to produce a phenotype.
Robin Holliday defined epigenetics as "the study of the mechanisms of temporal and spatial control of gene activity during the development of complex organisms." Thus epigenetic can be used to describe any aspect other than DNA sequence that influences the development of an organism.
The modern usage of the word is more narrow, referring to heritable traits (over rounds of cell division and sometimes transgenerationally) that do not involve changes to the underlying DNA sequence. The Greek prefix epi- in epigenetics implies features that are "on top of" or "in addition to" genetics; thus epigenetic traits exist on top of or in addition to the traditional molecular basis for inheritance.
Molecular basis of epigenetics
The molecular basis of epigenetics is complex. It involves modifications of the activation of certain genes, but not the basic structure of DNA. Additionally, the chromatin proteins associated with DNA may be activated or silenced. What this means is that every cell in your body has the same instruction manual, but different cell types are using different chapters. For example, your neurons contain the DNA instructions to make your fingernails, but for these and most other cells in the body, the necessary genes are turned off. Epigenetic changes are preserved when cells divide. Most epigenetic changes only occur within the course of one individual organism's lifetime, but some epigenetic changes are inherited from one generation to the next. Specific epigenetic processes include paramutation, bookmarking, imprinting, gene silencing, X chromosome inactivation, position effect, reprogramming, transvection, maternal effects, the progress of carcinogenesis, many effects of teratogens, regulation of histone modifications and heterochromatin, and technical limitations affecting parthenogenesis and cloning.
Epigenetic research uses a wide range of molecular biologic techniques to further our understanding of epigenetic phenomena, including chromatin immunoprecipitation (together with its large-scale variants ChIP-on-chip and ChIP-seq), fluorescent in situ hybridization, methylation-sensitive restriction enzymes, DNA adenine methyltransferase identification (DamID) and bisulfite sequencing. Furthermore, the use of bioinformatic methods is playing an increasing role (computational epigenetics).
Several types of epigenetic inheritance systems may play a role in what has become known as cell memory:
DNA methylation and chromatin remodeling
Because the phenotype of a cell or individual is affected by which of its genes are transcribed, heritable transcription states can give rise to epigenetic effects. There are several layers of regulation of gene expression. One way that genes are regulated is through the remodeling of chromatin. Chromatin is the complex of DNA and the histone proteins with which it associates. Histone proteins are little spheres that DNA wraps around. If the way that DNA is wrapped around the histones changes, gene expression can change as well. Chromatin remodeling is initiated by one of two things:
1. The first way is post translational modification of the amino acids that make up histone proteins.
2. The second way is the addition of methyl groups to the DNA, at CpG sites, to convert cytosine to 5-methylcytosine.
The way that the cells stay differentiated in the case of DNA methylation is more clear to us than it is in the case of histone shape. Basically, certain enzymes (such as Dnmt1) "prefer" the methylated cytosine. If this enzyme comes to a "hemimethylated" portion of DNA (DNA where only one strand contains the methylcytosine, and the other side still contains cytosine) the enzyme will methylate the other half.
Although modifications occur throughout the histone sequence, the unstructured termini of histones (called histone tails) are particularly highly modified. These modifications include acetylation, methylation and ubiquitylation. Acetylation is the most highly studied of these modifications. For example, acetylation of the K14 and K9 lysines of the tail of histone H3 by histone acetyltransferase enzymes (HATs) is generally correlated with transcriptional competence.
One mode of thinking is that this tendency of acetylation to be associated with "active" transcription is biophysical in nature. Because lysine normally has a positive charge on the nitrogen at its end, lysine can bind the negatively charged phosphates of the DNA backbone and prevent them from repelling each other. The acetylation event converts the positively charged amine group on the side chain into a neutral amide linkage. This removes the positive charge causing the DNA to repel itself. When this occurs, complexes like SWI/SNF and other transcriptional factors can bind to the DNA, thus opening it up and exposing it to enzymes like RNA polymerase so transcription of the gene can occur.
In addition, the positively charged tails of histone proteins from one nucleosome may interact with the histone proteins on a neighboring nucleosome, causing them to pack closely. Lysine acetylation may interfere with these interactions, causing the chromatin structure to open up.
Lysine acetylation may also act as a beacon to recruit other activating chromatin modifying enzymes (and basal transcription machinery as well). Indeed, the bromodomain—a protein segment (domain) that specifically binds acetyl-lysine—is found in many enzymes that help activate transcription including the SWI/SNF complex (on the protein polybromo). It may be that acetylation acts in this and the previous way to aid in transcriptional activation.
The idea that modifications act as docking modules for related factors is borne out by histone methylation as well. Methylation of lysine 9 of histone H3 has long been associated with constitutively transcriptionally silent chromatin (constitutive heterochromatin). It has been determined that a chromodomain (a domain that specifically binds methyl-lysine) in the transcriptionally repressive protein HP1 recruits HP1 to K9 methylated regions. One example that seems to refute the biophysical model for acetylation is that tri-methylation of histone H3 at lysine 4 is strongly associated with (and required for full) transcriptional activation. Tri-methylation in this case would introduce a fixed positive charge on the tail.
It should be emphasized that differing histone modifications are likely to function in differing ways; acetylation at one position is likely to function differently than acetylation at another position. Also, multiple modifications may occur at the same time, and these modifications may work together to change the behavior of the nucleosome. The idea that multiple dynamic modifications regulate gene transcription in a systematic and reproducible way is called the histone code.
DNA methylation frequently occurs in repeated sequences, and may help to suppress 'junk DNA': Because 5-methylcytosine is chemically very similar to thymidine, CpG sites are frequently mutated and become rare in the genome, except at CpG islands where they remain unmethylated. Epigenetic changes of this type thus have the potential to direct increased frequencies of permanent genetic mutation. DNA methylation patterns are known to be established and modified in response to environmental factors by a complex interplay of at least three independent DNA methyltransferases, DNMT1, DNMT3A and DNMT3B, the loss of any of which is lethal in mice. DNMT1 is the most abundant methyltransferase in somatic cells, localizes to replication foci, has a 10–40-fold preference for hemimethylated DNA and interacts with the proliferating cell nuclear antigen (PCNA). By preferentially modifying hemimethylated DNA, DNMT1 transfers patterns of methylation to a newly synthesized strand after DNA replication, and therefore is often referred to as the ‘maintenance' methyltransferase. DNMT1 is essential for proper embryonic development, imprinting and X-inactivation.
Chromosomal regions can adopt stable and heritable alternative states resulting in bistable gene expression without changes to the DNA sequence. Epigenetic control is often associated with alternative covalent modifications of histones. The stability and heritability of states of larger chromosomal regions are often thought to involve positive feedback where modified nucleosomes recruit enzymes that similarly modify nearby nucleosomes. A simplified stochastic model for this type of epigenetics is found here.
Because DNA methylation and chromatin remodeling play such a central role in many types of epigenic inheritance, the word "epigenetics" is sometimes used as a synonym for these processes. However, this can be misleading. Chromatin remodeling is not always inherited, and not all epigenetic inheritance involves chromatin remodeling.
It has been suggested that the histone code could be mediated by the effect of small RNAs. The recent discovery and characterization of a vast array of small (21- to 26-nt), non-coding RNAs suggests that there is an RNA component, possibly involved in epigenetic gene regulation. Small interfering RNAs can modulate transcriptional gene expression via epigenetic modulation of targeted promoters.
RNA transcripts and their encoded proteins
Sometimes a gene, after being turned on, transcribes a product that (either directly or indirectly) maintains the activity of that gene. For example, Hnf4 and MyoD enhance the transcription of many liver- and muscle-specific genes, respectively, including their own, through the transcription factor activity of the proteins they encode. Other epigenetic changes are mediated by the production of different splice forms of RNA, or by formation of double-stranded RNA (RNAi). Descendants of the cell in which the gene was turned on will inherit this activity, even if the original stimulus for gene-activation is no longer present. These genes are most often turned on or off by signal transduction, although in some systems where syncytia or gap junctions are important, RNA may spread directly to other cells or nuclei by diffusion. A large amount of RNA and protein is contributed to the zygote by the mother during oogenesis or via nurse cells, resulting in maternal effect phenotypes. A smaller quantity of sperm RNA is transmitted from the father, but there is recent evidence that this epigenetic information can lead to visible changes in several generations of offspring.
Prions are infectious forms of proteins. Proteins generally fold into discrete units which perform distinct cellular functions, but some proteins are also capable of forming an infectious conformational state known as a prion. Although often viewed in the context of infectious disease, prions are more loosely defined by their ability to catalytically convert other native state versions of the same protein to an infectious conformational state. It is in this latter sense that they can be viewed as epigenetic agents capable of inducing a phenotypic change without a modification of the genome.
Fungal prions are considered epigenetic because the infectious phenotype caused by the prion can be inherited without modification of the genome. PSI+ and URE3, discovered in yeast in 1965 and 1971, are the two best studied of this type of prion. Prions can have a phenotypic effect through the sequestration of protein in aggregates, thereby reducing that protein's activity. In PSI+ cells, the loss of the Sup35 protein (which is involved in termination of translation) causes ribosomes to have a higher rate of read-through of stop codons, an effect which results in suppression of nonsense mutations in other genes. The ability of Sup35 to form prions may be a conserved trait. It could confer an adaptive advantage by giving cells the ability to switch into a PSI+ state and express dormant genetic features normally terminated by premature stop codon mutations.
Structural inheritance systems
In ciliates such as Tetrahymena and Paramecium, genetically identical cells show heritable differences in the patterns of ciliary rows on their cell surface. Experimentally altered patterns can be transmitted to daughter cells. It seems existing structures act as templates for new structures. The mechanisms of such inheritance are unclear, but reasons exist to assume that multicellular organisms also use existing cell structures to assemble new ones.
Functions and consequences
Somatic epigenetic inheritance, particularly through DNA methylation and chromatin remodeling, is very important in the development of multicellular eukaryotic organisms. The genome sequence is static (with some notable exceptions), but cells differentiate in many different types, which perform different functions, and respond differently to the environment and intercellular signalling. Thus, as individuals develop, morphogens activate or silence genes in an epigenetically heritable fashion, giving cells a "memory". In mammals, most cells terminally differentiate, with only stem cells retaining the ability to differentiate into several cell types ("totipotency" and "multipotency"). In mammals, some stem cells continue producing new differentiated cells throughout life, but mammals are not able to respond to loss of some tissues, for example, the inability to regenerate limbs, which some other animals are capable of. Unlike animals, plant cells do not terminally differentiate, remaining totipotent with the ability to give rise to a new individual plant. While plants do utilise many of the same epigenetic mechanisms as animals, such as chromatin remodeling, it has been hypothesised that plant cells do not have "memories", resetting their gene expression patterns at each cell division using positional information from the environment and surrounding cells to determine their fate.
Epigenetics has many and varied potential medical applications. Congenital genetic disease is well understood, and it is also clear that epigenetics can play a role, for example, in the case of Angelman syndrome and Prader-Willi syndrome. These are normal genetic diseases caused by gene deletions, but are unusually common because individuals are essentially hemizygous because of genomic imprinting, and therefore a single gene knock out is sufficient to cause the disease, where most cases would require both copies to be knocked out.
Although epigenetics in multicellular organisms is generally thought to be a mechanism involved in differentiation, with epigenetic patterns "reset" when organisms reproduce, there have been some observations of transgenerational epigenetic inheritance (e.g., the phenomenon of paramutation observed in maize). Although most of these multigenerational epigenetic traits are gradually lost over several generations, the possibility remains that multigenerational epigenetics could be another aspect to evolution and adaptation. These effects may require enhancements to the standard conceptual framework of the modern evolutionary synthesis.
Epigenetic features may play a role in short-term adaptation of species by allowing for reversible phenotype variability. The modification of epigenetic features associated with a region of DNA allows organisms, on a multigenerational time scale, to switch between phenotypes that express and repress that particular gene. Whereas the DNA sequence of the region is not mutated, this change is reversible. It has also been speculated that organisms may take advantage of differential mutation rates associated with epigenetic features to control the mutation rates of particular genes.
Epigenetic changes have also been observed to occur in response to environmental exposure—for example, mice given some dietary supplements have epigenetic changes affecting expression of the agouti gene, which affects their fur color, weight, and propensity to develop cancer.
Epigenetic effects in humans
Genomic imprinting and related disorders
Some human disorders are associated with genomic imprinting, a phenomenon in mammals where the father and mother contribute different epigenetic patterns for specific genomic loci in their germ cells. The most well-known case of imprinting in human disorders is that of Angelman syndrome and Prader-Willi syndrome—both can be produced by the same genetic mutation, chromosome 15q partial deletion, and the particular syndrome that will develop depends on whether the mutation is inherited from the child's mother or from their father. This is due to the presence of genomic imprinting in the region. Beckwith-Wiedemann syndrome is also associated with genomic imprinting, often caused by abnormalities in maternal genomic imprinting of a region on chromosome 11.
Transgenerational epigenetic observations
Marcus Pembrey and colleagues also observed that the paternal (but not maternal) grandsons of Swedish boys who were exposed to famine in the 19th century were less likely to die of cardiovascular disease; if food was plentiful then diabetes mortality in the grandchildren increased, suggesting that this was a transgenerational epigenetic inheritance.
Cancer and developmental abnormalities
A variety of compounds are considered as epigenetic carcinogens—they result in an increased incidence of tumors, but they do not show mutagen activity (toxic compounds or pathogens that cause tumors incident to increased regeneration should also be excluded). Examples include diethylstilbestrol, arsenite, hexachlorobenzene, and nickel compounds.
Many teratogens exert specific effects on the fetus by epigenetic mechanisms. While epigenetic effects may preserve the effect of a teratogen such as diethylstilbestrol throughout the life of an affected child, the possibility of birth defects resulting from exposure of fathers or in second and succeeding generations of offspring has generally been rejected on theoretical grounds and for lack of evidence. However, a range of male-mediated abnormalities have been demonstrated, and more are likely to exist. FDA label information for Vidaza(tm), a formulation of 5-azacitidine (an unmethylatable analog of cytidine that causes hypomethylation when incorporated into DNA) states that "men should be advised not to father a child" while using the drug, citing evidence in treated male mice of reduced fertility, increased embryo loss, and abnormal embryo development. In rats, endocrine differences were observed in offspring of males exposed to morphine. In mice, second generation effects of diethylstilbesterol have been described occurring by epigenetic mechanisms.
Epigenetics in microorganisms
Bacteria make widespread use of postreplicative DNA methylation for the epigenetic control of DNA-protein interactions. Bacteria make use of DNA adenine methylation (rather than DNA cytosine methylation) as an epigenetic signal. DNA adenine methylation is important in bacteria virulence in organisms such as Escherichia coli, Salmonella, Vibrio, Yersinia, Haemophilus, and Brucella. In Alphaproteobacteria, methylation of adenine regulates the cell cycle and couples gene transcription to DNA replication. In Gammaproteobacteria, adenine methylation provides signals for DNA replication, chromosome segregation, mismatch repair, packaging of bacteriophage, transposase activity and regulation of gene expression.
The yeast prion PSI is generated by a conformational change of a translation termination factor, which is then inherited by daughter cells. This can provide a survival advantage under adverse conditions. This is an example of epigenetic regulation enabling unicellular organisms to respond rapidly to environmental stress. Prions can be viewed as epigenetic agents capable of inducing a phenotypic change without modification of the genome.