In the study, eed is the first protein shown to be required for the addition of a single methyl group to histone H3, said Montgomery. Knowing which proteins are responsible for the various histone modifications is the first step toward understanding how epigenetics influences such occurrences as cancer and birth defects, he added.
The discovery that eed is required to modify histone H3 in a unique way opens up new lines of investigation into the role eed might play in diverse biological processes.
"It may give us new gene targets to study relative to cancer and other disease states that may have these marks and have not been examined but should be," Magnuson said.
Another application of epigenetics is stem cell therapeutics, in which any specific tissue type could be derived from stem cells and used to replace damaged or diseased tissue.
Magnuson and his colleagues chose to study how eed influences genes in embryonic stem cells because they thought that would be directly applicable to stem cell technologies.
"In order to get a handle on individual stem cell therapeutics and make this application work, one has to begin to understand the epigenetics of the embryonic stem cells, and we really have very little information on that kind of technology," said Magnuson.
In addition to Magnuson and Montgomery, department of genetics authors include Della Yee, lab technician; Andrew Chen, undergraduate researcher; and Drs. Sundeep Kalantry and Stormy J. Chamberlain, postdoctoral fellows. Arie P. Otte, professor at the Swammerdam Institute for Life Sciences, Amsterdam, also contributed.