So, what is Epigenetics?
Epigenetics refers to the study of heritable changes in our genome (the complete set of all our genes) that occur without altering the DNA or genetic code.
But what does this actually mean? Find out more in our videos:
Kate Giles and Amanda Khoury from the Garvan Institute of Medical Research explain epigenetics and why they love it:
“There’s a layer that sits above the DNA that can influence whether the gene is turned on or off.”
They have been created for a broad, non-expert audience. These videos use original illustrations that, together with simple, clear narration help to highlight key messages about the role epigenetics plays in biological processes like development and diseases such as cancer.
Tagging DNA: Mislabelling the Cancer Genome
This simple question is posed right at the beginning of the latest 3D animation created by Dr Kate Patterson of the Garvan Institute as part of ‘VIZBIplus: Visualising the Future of Biomedicine’.
Humans have over 20,000 genes on long strands of DNA, which is tightly packaged around structures called histones. Together, the histones and DNA are referred to as the chromatin.
In the nucleus the genetic code is ‘read’ and transcribed into messages (RNA), which is translated into proteins. These proteins then carry out the functions in each cell of the body.
Of course not all genes/proteins are required by all cells all the time – they are turned on (or expressed) and off somehow – this is where Epigenetics comes in!
‘Epi’ means on top of or above – so Epigenetics refers to mechanisms that affect genes from above, ie, not affecting the genetic code itself. We know of two main epigenetic mechanisms controlling gene expression:
1. DNA methylation, which chemically modifies the base C, altering how the genetic code is read;
2. Chromatin remodelling, which alters the availability of genes for reading.
Disrupted gene expression underlies many human diseases such as cancer; the study of both genetics and epigenetics will help us to further understand such diseases and help us develop preventative measures as well as novel medical treatments.