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Hum Mol Genet. 2006 Oct 15;15 Spec No 2:R131-7.

How lifetimes shape epigenotype within and across generations.

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  • 1Division of Population Studies and Human Genetics, The Queensland Institute of Medical Research, Brisbane 4006, Australia.


Despite our detailed characterization of the human genome at the level of the primary DNA sequence, we are still far from understanding the molecular events underlying phenotypic variation. Epigenetic modifications to the DNA sequence and associated chromatin are known to regulate gene expression and, as such, are a significant contributor to phenotype. Studies of inbred mice and monozygotic twins show that variation in the epigenotype can be seen even between genetically identical individuals and that this, in some cases at least, is associated with phenotypic differences. Moreover, recent evidence suggests that the epigenome can be influenced by the environment and these changes can last a lifetime. However, we also know that epigenetic states in real-time are in continual flux and, as a result, the epigenome exhibits instability both within and across generations. We still do not understand the rules governing the establishment and maintenance of the epigenotype at any particular locus. The underlying DNA sequence itself and the sequence at unlinked loci (modifier loci) are certainly involved. Recent support for the existence of transgenerational epigenetic inheritance in mammals suggests that the epigenetic state of the locus in the previous generation may also play a role. Over the next decade, many of these processes will be better understood, heralding a greater capacity for us to correlate measurable molecular marks with phenotype and providing the opportunity for improved diagnosis and presymptomatic healthcare.

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