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The Epigenetics Revolution: How Modern Biology Is Rewriting Our Understanding of Genetics



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Author: Nessa Carey

Publisher: Columbia University Press

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Publish Date: October 1, 2013

ISBN-10: 9.78023E+12

Pages: 352

File Type: PDF

Language: English

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Book Preface

DNA.
Sometimes, when we read about biology, we could be forgiven for thinking that those three letters explain everything. Here, for example, are just a few of the statements made on 26 June 2000, when researchers announced that the human genome had been sequenced1:
Today we are learning the language in which God created life.
US President Bill Clinton
We now have the possibility of achieving all we ever hoped for from medicine.
UK Science Minister Lord Sainsbury
Mapping the human genome has been compared with putting a man on the moon, but I believe it is more than that. This is the outstanding achievement not only of our lifetime, but in terms of human history.
Michael Dexter, The Wellcome Trust
From these quotations, and many others like them, we might well think that researchers could have relaxed a bit after June 2000 because most human health and disease problems could now be sorted out really easily. After all, we had the blueprint for humankind. All we needed to do was get a bit better at understanding this set of instructions, so we could fill in a few details.
Unfortunately, these statements have proved at best premature. The reality is rather different.
We talk about DNA as if it’s a template, like a mould for a car part in a factory. In the factory, molten metal or plastic gets poured into the mould thousands of times and, unless something goes wrong in the process, out pop thousands of identical car parts.
But DNA isn’t really like that. It’s more like a script. Think of Romeo and Juliet, for example. In 1936 George Cukor directed Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer in a film version. Sixty years later Baz Luhrmann directed Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes in another movie version of this play. Both productions used Shakespeare’s script, yet the two movies are entirely different. Identical starting points, different outcomes.
That’s what happens when cells read the genetic code that’s in DNA. The same script can result in different productions. The implications of this for human health are very wide-ranging, as we will see from the case studies we are going to look at in a moment. In all these case studies it’s really important to remember that nothing happened to the DNA blueprint of the people in these case studies. Their DNA didn’t change (mutate), and yet their life histories altered irrevocably in response to their environments.
Audrey Hepburn was one of the 20th century’s greatest movie stars. Stylish, elegant and with a delicately lovely, almost fragile bone structure, her role as Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s has made her an icon, even to those who have never seen the movie. It’s startling to think that this wonderful beauty was created by terrible hardship. Audrey Hepburn was a survivor of an event in the Second World War known as the Dutch Hunger Winter. This ended when she was sixteen years old but the aftereffects of this period, including poor physical health, stayed with her for the rest of her life.
The Dutch Hunger Winter lasted from the start of November 1944 to the late spring of 1945. This was a bitterly cold period in Western Europe, creating further hardship in a continent that had been devastated by four years of brutal war. Nowhere was this worse than in the Western Netherlands, which at this stage was still under German control. A German blockade resulted in a catastrophic drop in the availability of food to the Dutch population. At one point the population was trying to survive on only about 30 per cent of the normal daily calorie intake. People ate grass and tulip bulbs, and burned every scrap of furniture they could get their hands on, in a desperate effort to stay alive. Over 20,000 people had died by the time food supplies were restored in May 1945.
The dreadful privations of this time also created a remarkable scientific study population. The Dutch survivors were a well-defined group of individuals all of whom suffered just one period of malnutrition, all of them at exactly the same time. Because of the excellent healthcare infrastructure and record-keeping in the Netherlands, epidemiologists have been able to follow the long-term effects of the famine. Their findings were completely unexpected.
One of the first aspects they studied was the effect of the famine on the birth weights of children who had been in the womb during that terrible period. If a mother was well-fed around the time of conception and malnourished only for the last few months of the pregnancy, her baby was likely to be born small. If, on the other hand, the mother suffered malnutrition for the first three months of the pregnancy only (because the baby was conceived towards the end of this terrible episode), but then was well-fed, she was likely to have a baby with a normal body weight. The foetus ‘caught up’ in body weight.
That all seems quite straightforward, as we are all used to the idea that foetuses do most of their growing in the last few months of pregnancy. But epidemiologists were able to study these groups of babies for decades and what they found was really surprising. The babies who were born small stayed small all their lives, with lower obesity rates than the general population. For forty or more years, these people had access to as much food as they wanted, and yet their bodies never got over the early period of malnutrition. Why not? How did these early life experiences affect these individuals for decades? Why weren’t these people able to go back to normal, once their environment reverted to how it should be?
Even more unexpectedly, the children whose mothers had been malnourished only early in pregnancy, had higher obesity rates than normal. Recent reports have shown a greater incidence of other health problems as well, including certain tests of mental activity. Even though these individuals had seemed perfectly healthy at birth, something had happened to their development in the womb that affected them for decades after. And it wasn’t just the fact that something had happened that mattered, it was when it happened. Events that take place in the first three months of development, a stage when the foetus is really very small, can affect an individual for the rest of their life.
Even more extraordinarily, some of these effects seem to be present in the children of this group, i.e. in the grandchildren of the women who were malnourished during the first three months of their pregnancy. So something that happened in one pregnant population affected their children’s children. This raised the really puzzling question of how these effects were passed on to subsequent generations.
Let’s consider a different human story. Schizophrenia is a dreadful mental illness which, if untreated, can completely overwhelm and disable an affected person. Patients may present with a range of symptoms including delusions, hallucinations and enormous difficulties focusing mentally. People with schizophrenia may become completely incapable of distinguishing between the ‘real world’ and their own hallucinatory and delusional realm. Normal cognitive, emotional and societal responses are lost. There is a terrible misconception that people with schizophrenia are likely to be violent and dangerous. For the majority of patients this isn’t the case at all, and the people most likely to suffer harm because of this illness are the patients themselves. Individuals with schizophrenia are fifty times more likely to attempt suicide than healthy individuals2.
Schizophrenia is a tragically common condition. It affects between 0.5 per cent and 1 per cent of the population in most countries and cultures, which means that there may be over fifty million people alive today who are suffering from this condition. Scientists have known for some time that genetics plays a strong role in determining if a person will develop this illness. We know this because if one of a pair of identical twins has schizophrenia, there is a 50 per cent chance that their twin will also have the condition. This is much higher than the 1 per cent risk in the general population.
Identical twins have exactly the same genetic code as each other. They share the same womb and usually they are brought up in very similar environments. When we consider this, it doesn’t seem surprising that if one of the twins develops schizophrenia, the chance that his or her twin will also develop the illness is very high. In fact, we have to start wondering why it isn’t higher. Why isn’t the figure 100 per cent? How is it that two apparently identical individuals can become so very different? An individual has a devastating mental illness but will their identical twin suffer from it too? Flip a coin – heads they win, tails they lose. Variations in the environment are unlikely to account for this, and even if they did, how would these environmental effects have such profoundly different impacts on two genetically identical people?
Here’s a third case study. A small child, less than three years old, is abused and neglected by his or her parents. Eventually, the state intervenes and the child is taken away from the biological parents and placed with foster or adoptive parents. These new carers love and cherish the child, doing everything they can to create a secure home, full of affection. The child stays with these new parents throughout the rest of its childhood and adolescence, and into young adulthood.
Sometimes everything works out well for this person. They grow up into a happy, stable individual indistinguishable from all their peers who had normal, non-abusive childhoods. But often, tragically, it doesn’t work out this way. Children who have suffered from abuse or neglect in their early years grow up with a substantially higher risk of adult mental health problems than the general population. All too often the child grows up into an adult at high risk of depression, self-harm, drug abuse and suicide.
Once again, we have to ask ourselves why. Why is it so difficult to override the effects of early childhood exposure to neglect or abuse? Why should something that happened early in life have effects on mental health that may still be obvious decades later? In some cases, the adult may have absolutely no recollection of the traumatic events, and yet they may suffer the consequences mentally and emotionally for the rest of their lives.
These three case studies seem very different on the surface. The first is mainly about nutrition, especially of the unborn child. The second is about the differences that arise between genetically identical individuals. The third is about long-term psychological damage as a result of childhood abuse.
But these stories are linked at a very fundamental biological level. They are all examples of epigenetics. Epigenetics is the new discipline that is revolutionising biology. Whenever two genetically identical individuals are non-identical in some way we can measure, this is called epigenetics. When a change in environment has biological consequences that last long after the event itself has vanished into distant memory, we are seeing an epigenetic effect in action.
Epigenetic phenomena can be seen all around us, every day. Scientists have identified many examples of epigenetics, just like the ones described above, for many years. When scientists talk about epigenetics they are referring to all the cases where the genetic code alone isn’t enough to describe what’s happening – there must be something else going on as well.
This is one of the ways that epigenetics is described scientifically, where things which are genetically identical can actually appear quite different to one another. But there has to be a mechanism that brings out this mismatch between the genetic script and the final outcome. These epigenetic effects must be caused by some sort of physical change, some alterations in the vast array of molecules that make up the cells of every living organism. This leads us to the other way of viewing epigenetics – the molecular description. In this model, epigenetics can be defined as the set of modifications to our genetic material that change the ways genes are switched on or off, but which don’t alter the genes themselves.
Although it may seem confusing that the word ‘epigenetics’ can have two different meanings, it’s just because we are describing the same event at two different levels. It’s a bit like looking at the pictures in old newspapers with a magnifying glass, and seeing that they are made up of dots. If we didn’t have a magnifying glass we might have thought that each picture was just made in one solid piece and we’d probably never have been able to work out how so many new images could be created each day. On the other hand, if all we ever did was look through the magnifying glass, all we would see would be dots, and we’d never see the incredible image that they formed together and which we’d see if we could only step back and look at the big picture.
The revolution that has happened very recently in biology is that for the first time we are actually starting to understand how amazing epigenetic phenomena are caused. We’re no longer just seeing the large image, we can now also analyse the individual dots that created it. Crucially, this means that we are finally starting to unravel the missing link between nature and nurture; how our environment talks to us and alters us, sometimes forever.
The ‘epi’ in epigenetics is derived from Greek and means at, on, to, upon, over or beside. The DNA in our cells is not some pure, unadulterated molecule. Small chemical groups can be added at specific regions of DNA. Our DNA is also smothered in special proteins. These proteins can themselves be covered with additional small chemicals. None of these molecular amendments changes the underlying genetic code. But adding these chemical groups to the DNA, or to the associated proteins, or removing them, changes the expression of nearby genes. These changes in gene expression alter the functions of cells, and the very nature of the cells themselves. Sometimes, if these patterns of chemical modifications are put on or taken off at a critical period in development, the pattern can be set for the rest of our lives, even if we live to be over a hundred years of age.
There’s no debate that the DNA blueprint is a starting point. A very important starting point and absolutely necessary, without a doubt. But it isn’t a sufficient explanation for all the sometimes wonderful, sometimes awful, complexity of life. If the DNA sequence was all that mattered, identical twins would always be absolutely identical in every way. Babies born to malnourished mothers would gain weight as easily as other babies who had a healthier start in life. And as we shall see in Chapter 1, we would all look like big amorphous blobs, because all the cells in our bodies would be completely identical.
Huge areas of biology are influenced by epigenetic mechanisms, and the revolution in our thinking is spreading further and further into unexpected frontiers of life on our planet. Some of the other examples we’ll meet in this book include why we can’t make a baby from two sperm or two eggs, but have to have one of each. What makes cloning possible? Why is cloning so difficult? Why do some plants need a period of cold before they can flower? Since queen bees and worker bees are genetically identical, why are they completely different in form and function? Why are all tortoiseshell cats female? Why is it that humans contain trillions of cells in hundreds of complex organs, and microscopic worms contain about a thousand cells and only rudimentary organs, but we and the worm have the same number of genes?
Scientists in both the academic and commercial sectors are also waking up to the enormous impact that epigenetics has on human health. It’s implicated in diseases from schizophrenia to rheumatoid arthritis, and from cancer to chronic pain. There are already two types of drugs that successfully treat certain cancers by interfering with epigenetic processes. Pharmaceutical companies are spending hundreds of millions of dollars in a race to develop the next generation of epigenetic drugs to treat some of the most serious illnesses afflicting the industrialised world. Epigenetic therapies are the new frontiers of drug discovery.
In biology, Darwin and Mendel came to define the 19th century as the era of evolution and genetics; Watson and Crick defined the 20th century as the era of DNA, and the functional understanding of how genetics and evolution interact. But in the 21st century it is the new scientific discipline of epigenetics that is unravelling so much of what we took as dogma and rebuilding it in an infinitely more varied, more complex and even more beautiful fashion.
The world of epigenetics is a fascinating one. It’s filled with remarkable subtlety and complexity, and in Chapters 3 and 4 we’ll delve deeper into the molecular biology of what’s happening to our genes when they become epigenetically modified. But like so many of the truly revolutionary concepts in biology, epigenetics has at its basis some issues that are so simple they seem completely self-evident as soon as they are pointed out. Chapter 1 is the single most important example of such an issue. It’s the investigation which started the epigenetics revolution.
Notes on nomenclature
There is an international convention on the way that the names of genes and proteins are written, which we adhere to in this book.
Gene names and symbols are written in italics. The proteins encoded by the genes are written in plain text.
The symbols for human genes and proteins are written in upper case. For other species, such as mice, the symbols are usually written with only the first letter capitalised.
This is summarised for a hypothetical gene in the following table.
image
Like all rules, however, there are a few quirks in this system and while these conventions apply in general we will encounter some exceptions in this book.

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