Epigenetics in Women's Health Care



Epigenetics refers to structural modifications to genes that do not change the nucleotide sequence itself but instead control and regulate gene expression. DNA methylation, histone modification, and RNA regulation are some of the mechanisms involved in epigenetic modification. Epigenetic changes are believed to be a result of changes in an organism's environment that result in fixed and permanent changes in most differentiated cells. Some environmental changes that have been linked to epigenetic changes include starvation, folic acid, and various chemical exposures. There are periods in an organism's life cycle in which the organism is particularly susceptible to epigenetic influences; these include fertilization, gametogenesis, and early embryo development. These are also windows of opportunity for interventions during the reproductive life cycle of women to improve maternal-child health. New data suggest that epigenetic influences might be involved in the regulation of fetal development and the pathophysiology of adult diseases such as cancer, diabetes, obesity, and neurodevelopmental disorders. Various epigenetic mechanisms may also be involved in the pathogenesis of preeclampsia and intrauterine growth restriction. Additionally, environmental exposures are being held responsible for causing epigenetic changes that lead to a disease process. Exposure to heavy metals, bioflavinoids, and endocrine disruptors, such as bisphenol A and phthalates, has been shown to affect the epigenetic memory of an organism. Their long-term effects are unclear at this point, but many ongoing studies are attempting to elucidate the pathophysiological effects of such gene-environment interactions. Mt Sinai J Med 77:225–235, 2010. © 2010 Mount Sinai School of Medicine