SEARCH

SEARCH BY CITATION

Abstract

Epigenetics refers to mitotically and/or meiotically heritable variations in gene expression that are not caused by changes in DNA sequence. Epigenetic mechanisms regulate all biological processes from conception to death, including genome reprogramming during early embryogenesis and gametogenesis, cell differentiation and maintenance of a committed lineage. Key epigenetic players are DNA methylation and histone post-translational modifications, which interplay with each other, with regulatory proteins and with non-coding RNAs, to remodel chromatin into domains such as euchromatin, constitutive or facultative heterochromatin and to achieve nuclear compartmentalization. Besides epigenetic mechanisms such as imprinting, chromosome X inactivation or mitotic bookmarking which establish heritable states, other rapid and transient mechanisms, such as histone H3 phosphorylation, allow cells to respond and adapt to environmental stimuli. However, these epigenetic marks can also have long-term effects, for example in learning and memory formation or in cancer. Erroneous epigenetic marks are responsible for a whole gamut of diseases including diseases evident at birth or infancy or diseases becoming symptomatic later in life. Moreover, although epigenetic marks are deposited early in development, adaptations occurring through life can lead to diseases and cancer. With epigenetic marks being reversible, research has started to focus on epigenetic therapy which has had encouraging success. As we witness an explosion of knowledge in the field of epigenetics, we are forced to revisit our dogma. For example, recent studies challenge the idea that DNA methylation is irreversible. Further, research on Rett syndrome has revealed an unforeseen role for methyl-CpG-binding protein 2 (MeCP2) in neurons. J. Cell. Physiol. 219: 243–250, 2009. © 2009 Wiley-Liss, Inc.