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Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2009 Nov 27;364(1534):3403-18. doi: 10.1098/rstb.2009.0125.

Epigenetic responses to environmental change and their evolutionary implications.

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Institute of Biomedical Research, University of Birmingham Medical School, Birmingham B15 2TT, UK.


Chromatin is a complex of DNA, RNA, histones and non-histone proteins and provides the platform on which the transcriptional machinery operates in eukaryotes. The structure and configuration of chromatin are manipulated by families of enzymes, some catalysing the dynamic addition and removal of chemical ligands to selected protein amino acids and some directly altering or displacing the basic structural units. The activities of many of these enzymes are sensitive to environmental and metabolic agents and can thereby serve as sensors through which environmental agents can alter gene expression. Such changes can, in turn, precipitate either local or cell-wide changes as the initial effect spreads through multiple interactive networks. This review discusses the increasingly well-understood mechanisms through which these enzymes alter chromatin function. In some cases at least, it seems that the effects on gene expression may persist even after the removal of the inducing agent, and can be passed on, through mitosis, to subsequent cell generations, constituting a heritable, epigenetic change. If such changes occur in germ cells or their precursors, then they may be passed on to subsequent generations. Mechanisms are now known to exist through which an epigenetic change might give rise to a localized change in DNA sequence exerting the same functional effect, thereby converting an epigenetic to a genetic change. If the induced genetic change has phenotypic effects on which selection can act, then this hypothetical chain of events constitutes a potential route through which the environment might directly influence evolution.

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