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Epigenetic changes don't last
Date:9/20/2011

ndomly, but often at the same places in the genome. While genes were disproportionately often affected, methylation of mobile DNA elements, transposons, was very stable. This appears to make sense, since it was already known that artificially induced loss of methylation has a much greater effect on the activity of transposons than of regular genes.

More important than the state of individual cytosines is probably the methylation of larger segments of the genome. "In each plant we found only about 30 such regions in which they differed from the other lines," explains Becker. Hagmann adds: "Such whole-sale epigenetic changes appear to be as rare as true DNA sequence mutations". These differences can nevertheless appear very rapidly. The biologists discovered one region that first lost its methyl groups, only to become completely remethylated in the next generation.

What makes epigenetics interesting for human health is the fact that some epigenetic changes can be triggered by external factors. There is evidence that nutrition or the bond between children and their parents can leave traces in the genome that can be passed on to the next generation. The limited stability of DNA methylation implies, however, that such differences do not necessarily last forever, which is probably not a bad idea because a famine might not last forever. It also means that altered DNA methylation often cannot become subject to natural selection.

The results of the Max Planck scientists demonstrate that epigenetic differences can also arise spontaneously, without drastic changes in the environment. After all, the growth conditions in the green house, where each of the 10 lines was propagated, were constant. This opens the door to further speculation. "We suspect that the epimutation increase is higher and more variable when plants grow in nature, where they are stressed all the time", says Becker. If this were paralleled by an even higher reversion rate, then the i
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Contact: Detlef Weigel
detlef.weigel@tuebingen.mpg.de
49-707-160-11411
Max-Planck-Gesellschaft
Source:Eurekalert  

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