The epigenome is a lesser known part of the study of genetics. It consists of the parts of the genome which are not part of the DNA, for example transcription factors and the accessibility of different sections of the chromatin. DNA in the cell is wrapped around proteins called histones. The wrapping of DNA around these histones are also a factor which controls which parts of the DNA are read into proteins. Furthermore, DNA methylation is an important regulatory factor. The addition of methane groups to DNA makes it impossible to read, effectively shutting off the gene that is methylating.
The epigenome is unique because it can be changed significantly in response to external stimuli. In a way, it is the body’s way of altering DNA on the fly, without actually altering the genetic code. The epigenome can also plays a role in cell differentiation. In class, we discussed how all cells have identical genetic code, passed down from one cell to another. All cells start the same and eventually change into all the different types. The epigenome helps to control exactly which parts of the genome are expressed. It is the epigenome which controls which parts of the genetic code are expressed.
However, the epigenome is still passed down hereditarily and down cell lines. As cells divide through mitosis or meiosis, the epigenome is passed down to the daughter cells. This combination of constant adaptation and persistence through generations make the epigenome an essential part of the body’s function. The combo also makes the epigenome a key part of how the body can be changed for a significant period of time by negative stimuli. These effects can even span generations and have been shown to effect the course of evolution.
Recently, scientists at the University of Liverpool have demonstrated exposure to pollution in water fleas has effects that last over 15 generations. When exposed to a pollutant for a period of 7 months, which encompasses 15 generations of fleas, scientists observed increased rates of DNA methylation. When transferred back to clean water, the scientists found that DNA methylation remained the same. Thus, the pollution permanently damaged the epigenome of the fleas.