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epigenetics

Variations within neurons

Caption: Single-cell analysis helps to reveal subtle, but important, differences among human cells, including many types of brain cells.
Credit: Shutterstock, modified by Ryan M. Mulqueen

Imagine how long it would take to analyze the 37 trillion or so cells that make up the human body if you had to do it by hand, one by one! Still, single-cell analysis is crucial to gaining a comprehensive understanding of our biology. The cell is the unit of life for all organisms, and all cells are certainly not the same. Think about it: even though each cell contains the same DNA, some make up your skin while others build your bones; some of your cells might be super healthy while others could be headed down the road to cancer or Alzheimer’s disease.

So, it’s no surprise that many NIH-funded researchers are hard at work in the rapidly emerging field known as single-cell analysis. In fact, one team recently reported impressive progress in improving the speed and efficiency of a method to analyze certain epigenetic features of individual cells [1]. Epigenetics refers to a multitude of chemical and protein “marks” on a cell’s DNA—patterns that vary among cells and help to determine which genes are switched on or off. That plays a major role in defining cellular identity as a skin cell, liver cell, or pancreatic cancer cell.

The team’s rather simple but ingenious approach relies on attaching a unique combination of two DNA barcodes to each cell prior to analyzing epigenetic marks all across the genome, making it possible for researchers to pool hundreds of cells without losing track of each of them individually. Using this approach, the researchers could profile thousands of individual cells simultaneously for less than 50 cents per cell, a 50- to 100-fold drop in price. The new approach promises to yield important insights into the role of epigenetic factors in our health, from the way neurons in our brains function to whether or not a cancer responds to treatment.

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Bradley Bernstein

Bradley Bernstein

Inside our cells, strands of DNA wrap around spool-like histone proteins to form a DNA-histone complex called chromatin. Bradley Bernstein, a pathologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard University, and Broad Institute, has always been fascinated by this process. What interests him is the fact that an approximately 6-foot-long strand of DNA can be folded and packed into orderly chromatin structures inside a cell nucleus that’s just 0.0002 inch wide.

Bernstein’s fascination with DNA packaging led to the recent major discovery that, when chromatin misfolds in brain cells, it can activate a gene associated with the cancer glioma [1]. This suggested a new cancer-causing mechanism that does not require specific DNA mutations. Now, with a 2016 NIH Director’s Pioneer Award, Bernstein is taking a closer look at how misfolded and unstable chromatin can drive tumor formation, and what that means for treating cancer.

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Keith Maggert

Keith Maggert

To learn more about how DNA and inheritance works, Keith Maggert has spent much of his nearly 30 years as a researcher studying what takes place not just within the DNA genome but also the subtle modifications of it. That’s where a stable of enzymes add chemical marks to DNA, turning individual genes on or off without changing their underlying sequence. What’s really intrigued Maggert is these “epigenetic” modifications are maintained through cell division and can even get passed down from parent to child over many generations. Like many researchers, he wants to know how it happens.

Maggert thinks there’s more to the story than scientists have realized. Now an associate professor at the University of Arizona College of Medicine, Tucson, he suspects that a prominent subcellular structure in the nucleus called the nucleolus also exerts powerful epigenetic effects. What’s different about the nucleolus, Maggert proposes, is it doesn’t affect genes one by one, a focal point of current epigenetic research. He thinks under some circumstances its epigenetic effects can activate many previously silenced, or “off” genes at once, sending cells and individuals on a different path toward health or disease.

Maggert has received a 2016 NIH Director’s Transformative Research Award to pursue this potentially new paradigm. If correct, it would transform current thinking in the field and provide an exciting new perspective to track epigenetics and its contributions to a wide range of human diseases, including cancer, cardiovascular disease, and neurodegenerative disorders.

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Brain scan analysis

Caption: Oncologists review a close-up image of a brain tumor (green dot).
Credit: National Cancer Institute

Scientists have spent much time and energy mapping the many DNA misspellings that can transform healthy cells into cancerous ones. But recently it has become increasingly clear that changes to the DNA sequence itself are not the only culprits. Cancer can also be driven by epigenetic changes to DNA—modifications to chemical marks on the genome don’t alter the sequence of the DNA molecule, but act to influence gene activity. A prime example of this can been seen in glioblastoma, a rare and deadly form of brain cancer that strikes about 12,000 Americans each year.

In fact, an NIH-funded research team recently published in Nature Communications the most complete portrait to date of the epigenetic patterns characteristic of the glioblastoma genome [1]. Among their findings were patterns associated with how long patients survived after the cancer was detected. While far more research is needed, the findings highlight the potential of epigenetic information to help doctors devise more precise ways of diagnosing, treating, and perhaps even preventing glioblastoma and many other forms of cancer.

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Mice

Caption: Genetically identical mice. The Agouti gene is active in the yellow mouse and inactive in the brown mouse.
Credit: Dana Dolinoy, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and Randy Jirtle, Duke University, Durham, NC

Step inside the lab of Dana Dolinoy at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and you’re sure to hear conversations that include the rather strange word “agouti” (uh-goo-tee). In this context, it’s a name given to a strain of laboratory mice that arose decades ago from a random mutation in the Agouti gene, which is normally expressed only transiently in hair follicles. The mutation causes the gene to be turned on, or expressed, continuously in all cell types, producing mice that are yellow, obese, and unusually prone to developing diabetes and cancer. As it turns out, these mutant mice and the gene they have pointed to are more valuable than ever today because they offer Dolinoy and other researchers an excellent model for studying the rapidly emerging field of epigenomics.

The genome of the mouse, just as for the human, is the complete DNA instruction book; it contains the coding information for building the proteins that carry out a variety of functions in a cell. But modifications to the DNA determine its function, and these are collectively referred to as the epigenome. The epigenome is made up of chemical tags and proteins that can attach to the DNA and direct such actions as turning genes on or off, thereby controlling the production of proteins in particular cells. These tags have different patterns in each cell type, helping to explain, for example, why a kidney and a skin cell can behave so differently when they share the same DNA.

Some types of genes, including Agouti, are particularly vulnerable to epigenomic effects. In fact, Dolinoy has discovered that exposing normal, wild-type (brown) mice to certain chemicals and dietary factors during pregnancy can switch on the Agouti gene in their developing offspring, turning their coats yellow and their health poor. Dolinoy says these experiments raise much larger questions: If researchers discover populations of humans that have been exposed to lifestyle or environmental factors that modify their epigenomes in ways that may possibly contribute to risk for certain diseases, can the modification be passed on to their children and grandchildren (referred to as transgenerational epigenetic inheritance, a controversial topic)? If so, how can we develop the high-precision tools needed to better understand and perhaps even reduce such risks? The University of Michigan researcher received a 2015 NIH Director’s Transformative Research Award to undertake that challenge.

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