In the past 15 years, our understanding of the epigenome — the chemical layer that sits on top of the genome that switches genes “on” or “off” — has taken science in new and exciting directions.
As researchers discover how our environment, diet and exercise play key roles in health and development of disease, they’re learning the genome may not be the static hardware we previously labeled it as. For instance, research suggests that epigenetic changes from lifestyle and diet not only alter our epigenome, but they can also alter the epigenomes of our children and grandchildren.
These fundamental questions are bringing together more than 200 experts across the country and world to share the latest developments and knowledge in epigenetics at the Midwest Chromatin and Epigenetics Meeting supported by the Institute’s Epigenetics research group in the Discovery Building.
How has epigenetics changed the “Nature versus Nurture” debate?
Peter Lewis: People still think of it that way — that genes don’t change and you can’t do much about it. But for “Nurture,” what does it really mean? It’s your environment, what you’re eating, what you’re seeing, what you’re taking in. And in epigenetics, this is where the rubber meets the road for “Nurture,” because this is where your environment is finally impacting your biology.
It’s going to affect the way you metabolize food; it’s going to affect the way your brain develops and gives rise to your personality; it’s going to affect the way you may develop certain diseases in the future that may also affect your gametes, which affect the next generation. These are the questions people have been thinking about in biology, and epigenetics has always been this black box. We know something is going on, we know it’s inherited, but we have no idea how it works because it doesn’t follow our classic Mendelian rules of genetics.
Are these insights influencing other fields of science?
John Denu: Partly because of the discoveries of the last 5 years or so, I think it’s sparked people’s interest in what’s possible. Other researchers have captured that interest and they’re applying it to their prior research interests, looking how epigenetics and chromatin regulation fit in their fields. In that respect, the field is exploding. I wouldn’t say there’s one particular area that’s dominating the field in terms of where the interest is going. It’s pretty widespread. We’re also seeing members of the medical community in particular asking, “How does this impact the diseases and human afflictions I study?”
Xuehua Zhong: I agree. Gene regulation is involved in so many areas — almost every biological process is affected by epigenetic changes. Say you look at the two epigenomes in different people, maybe one living with a disease and the other not. I feel that an even more challenging question is: Are these changes to the epigenome the consequences or the causes? We only see the patterns. I think this is really an important question for gene therapy or fundamental drug discoveries. It’s why the molecular biology is so crucial.
Denu: The group of 200-plus coming to this meeting — these are the folks that are going to figure out causation. It has to be done at the molecular level.
What are some of the topics of focus at the meeting?
Rupa Sridharan: To me, the most important thing that has happened in the past year is the ability to change the epigenome at a specific location. Until now, all that we were doing was filling our library — observing correlations. We were saying, “OK, there are differences between twins, there are differences between a young person and an old person, there are differences in disease for which we cannot find a genetic cause.” But in the past year, with the development of CRISPR-Cas9 system, we can actually manipulate an epigenetic change and we can ask “Does this really go from correlation to causation?”
Until now, if you wanted to make an epigenetic change, you would remove the enzyme, which will remove that particular epigenetic mark all over the cell. But really what we want is that if there’s a change in a tumor suppressor gene, say a specific epigenetic change, we’ve cataloged it, we know it’s highly correlated with a specific disease, but now we can make a change only at that specific place. That’s the specific targeting these technologies have allowed.
Denu: Absolutely. This is a very technique-driven field right now, and I’d say some of the most important techniques in biology are being developed out of this field. It’s really empowering a lot of scientists. The word “epigenetics” is used many different ways, and its definition has been altered every decade or two. But to me, it’s the new biology; it just goes by a different name.
Interview conducted and edited by Marianne Spoon