One gene for pea pod color generates green pods while a variant of that gene gives rise to the yellow-pod phenotype, a feature that helped Gregor Mendel, the 19th century Austrian priest and scientist, first describe genetic inheritance. However, many modern-day geneticists are focused on the strange ability of some genes to be expressed spontaneously in either of two possible ways.
In order to better understand this phenomenon of epigenetic multistability, a major complication for Mendelian genetics, scientists at UC San Diego grew virtual bacterial cells in a computer experiment. They created a two-phenotype model system programmed to grow in ways that matched natural growth. In a deceptively simple experiment, they then recorded the degree to which the two phenotypes varied over time in individual cells, and then repeated the experiment over and over. They reported in the Nov. 19 online edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) that variability due to epigenetic multistability is larger and persists much longer than they had expected.
While the phenomenon is yet to be discovered in the human genome, the new results suggest that researchers studying bacteria should carefully design their experiments to measure variability due to epigenetic multistability. Even in human cells, multistability may play a role in genes can alternate between on and off settings.
Scientists studying bacteria have simply not had the tools to understand phenotypic variability, said Ting Lu, lead author of the study who was a UCSD graduate student in the lab of bioengineering professor Jeff Hasty. (Lu is currently a postdoctoral fellow at Princeton University.) Weve arrived at a theoretical framework that allows experimenters to measure the ephemeral nature of epigenetics.
Epigenetic multistability may be vital to cells that are outwardly different, but genetically identical. Only one of the two phenotypes m
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University of California - San Diego