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NIH announces new initiative in epigenomics

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) will invest more than $190 million over the next five years to accelerate an emerging field of biomedical research known as epigenomics.

"Disease is about more than genetics. It's about how genes are regulated -- how and when they work in both health and disease," said NIH Director Elias A. Zerhouni, M.D. "Epigenomics will build upon our new knowledge of the human genome and help us better understand the role of the environment in regulating genes that protect our health or make us more susceptible to disease."

The NIH is making this a priority in its research portfolio, taking it on as an NIH Roadmap initiative. Grant applications are now being accepted for research on epigenome mapping centers, epigenomics data analysis and coordination, technology development in epigenetics, and discovery of novel epigenetic marks in mammalian cells.

Epigenetics focuses on processes that regulate how and when certain genes are turned on and turned off, while epigenomics pertains to analysis of epigenetic changes across many genes in a cell or entire organism.

Epigenetic processes control normal growth and development. Diet and exposure to environmental chemicals throughout all stages of human development among other factors can cause epigenetic changes that may turn on or turn off certain genes. Changes in genes that would normally protect against a disease, as a result, could make people more susceptible to developing that disease later in life. Researchers also believe some epigenetic changes can be passed on from generation to generation.

The Epigenomics Program is a trans-NIH effort led by several NIH institutes including the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, and the National Center for Biotechnology Information of the National Library of Medicine. Efforts of these Institutes are coordinated by the Office of Portfolio Analysis and Strategic Initiatives (OPASI) as part of the NIH Roadmap.

"Epigenetic mechanisms are important in development, aging, and learning and memory, but our understanding of epigenetic processes is still very much in its infancy," said NIDA Director Nora D. Volkow. "A deeper understanding of epigenetics will enable researchers to make significant strides in understanding and treating many diseases including cancers, obesity, depression, and addiction."

Increased interest in epigenetics has spawned international research collaborations that have pushed the field forward in recent years. With the NIH Roadmap initiative, the United States will increase its commitment to epigenetics research and accelerate the pace of biomedical discovery in the next decade.

For example, epigenetics may help explain how some people are predisposed to certain illnesses such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes and hypertension. Several studies have documented that children born to mothers who did not get adequate nutrition during pregnancy were more likely to develop type 2 diabetes and coronary heart disease later in life. The theory is that epigenetic changes occur in genes that regulate sugar absorption and metabolism during fetal development that allow for survival with little food, but when encountered with an environment where food was plentiful these changes led to development of diabetes. (See scientific illustration of how epigenetic mechanisms can affect health at .)

"Although we are beginning to understand a great deal about the basic science of epigenetics, this initiative heralds its application to human health and disease. This initiative will connect real life problems with cutting edge science," said Dr. Alan Krensky director of OPASI.

NIH hopes to achieve the following goals with the Epigenomics Program:

  • Coordinate and develop a series of reference epigenome maps, analogous to genome maps, which will be publicly available to facilitate research in human health and disease.

  • Evaluate epigenetic mechanisms in aging, development, environmental exposure including physical and chemical exposures, behavioral and social environments, and modifiers of stress.

  • Develop new technologies for epigenetic analysis of single cells and imaging of epigenetic activity in living organisms.

  • Engage the international community to define standard practices and platforms, to develop new laboratory tools such as antibodies.

The overall hypothesis of the NIH Roadmap Epigenomics Program is that the origins of health and susceptibility to disease are, in part, the result of epigenetic regulation of the genetic blueprint. Researchers believe that understanding how and when epigenetic processes control genes during different stages of development and throughout life will lead to more effective ways to prevent and treat disease.


Contact: Karen Silver
NIH/Office of the Director

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