The research offers an important contribution to a new wave of thinking in genetics: that not all human disease states are due to alterations in DNA sequence. Dr. Terry Magnuson - Sarah Graham Kenan professor, chairman of genetics and director of the Carolina Center for Genome Sciences in UNC's School of Medicine - led the research.
Researchers five decades ago worked to crack the genetic code, the nucleic acid sequence of As, Cs, Gs and Ts making up the DNA of genes. Today, Magnuson's team is trying to unravel a different, newly appreciated mode of inheritance: epigenetics.
"Epigenetic inheritance is heritable information passed down through generations of cells that is not encoded by the DNA sequence," said Nathan D. Montgomery, a graduate student in Magnuson's laboratory and first author of the paper.
This information is in the form of chemical modifications on any of four core histone proteins that group together to provide a molecular scaffold supporting the roughly 35,000 genes in the nucleus of every human cell. Histone modifications affect gene activity and include methylation, in which a methyl component is attached to the histone protein.
The prevailing model is that methylation on histones serves as a docking site for proteins that "read" this histone modification, and it's those proteins that directly have an impact on gene expression - either by activating or silencing a gene.
"Diversity is determined by different types of chemical modifications and also by the number of modifications," Montgomery said. "And those modifications are the unit of epigeneti
Source:University of North Carolina School of Medicine