Scientists discover how epigenetic information could be inherited

New research reveals a potential way for how parents’ experiences could be passed to their offspring’s genes. The research was published today, 25 January, in the journal Science. Epigenetics is a system that turns our genes on and off. The process works by chemical tags, known as epigenetic marks, attaching to DNA and telling a cell to either use or ignore a particular gene.

Read on

Dr Jamie Hackett from the University of Cambridge, who led the research, said: “Our research demonstrates how genes could retain some memory of their past experiences, revealing that one of the big barriers to the theory of epigenetic inheritance – that epigenetic information is erased between generations – should be reassessed.

During the gestation process, the methyl marks are removed from the DNA. It has long been assumed that this process was 100% foolproof. However, it now appears that some of the marks escape the reset process and can pass across generations. One of the unanswered questions in this paper is whether the marks that escape the reset process are peculiar from other marks in some distinct way. Or, is it just some random mistake that would differ with each new generation that was reproduced? I suspect it is the former, because epidemiological research seems to indicate that certain aberrant marks cross the generational gap continuously.

This would seem to be a fruitful area for further research. Right now, some researchers are trying to figure out how they might clear the marks that make it across the generations if those marks are detrimental. However, if there is something special about these marks that allows them to cross the generational divide, it does beg the question whether this might be an epigenetic analogy to the sickle cell anemia phenomenon. In other words, certain marks may cross the generations because they confer some type of benefit.

One of the best known examples is a change that occurred to Dutch citizens who were suffering from food deprivation during world World War II appears to have experienced an epigenetic shift that promotes obesity and that this shift has continued for generations.

It actually makes sense that if the physiology responds to a situation akin to famine that the adaptive response would continue for generations. It is unclear if any safe and holistic methods can short-circuit this aberration. My gut (no pun intended) tells me that the microbiome may be the key.