Roadmap to our epigenome reveals the genetic switches that make one adult cell type different from others

A decade ago scientists made a huge news splash when they announced the completion of the human genome project declaring it the first road map of our genes. But it did not take long to realize that the early road map was like some of the early days of GPS systems: it lacked knowledge of many on-ramps, off-ramps and one-way streets.

Today, the scientific world announced a massive fix to its genetic GPS. While all of our cells carry the same genes, their function varies wildly based one which genes are turned off, which are turned on, and even which are turned on in a hyper active way. Complex chemical and structural changes in the chromosomes that house our genes—collectively called the epigenome—determine that activity.

This video from Nature explaining the epigenome with music metaphors is linked in the last paragraph.

This video from Nature explains the epigenome with music metaphors.

A massive project, mostly funded by the National Institutes of Health through a consortium of research teams around the country, published a series of papers today in Nature. The Roadmap Epigenomic Consortium did extensive analysis of 111 epigenomes from different types of cells: normal heart tissue and immune cells, for example, as well as cells from patients with diseases such as neurons from patients with Alzheimer’s. The Scientist this morning quoted one member of the Consortium, MIT’s Manolis Kellis:

“The human epigenome is this collection of . . . chemical modifications on the DNA itself and on the packaging that holds DNA together. All our cells have a copy of the same book, but they’re all reading different chapters, bookmarking different pages, and highlighting different paragraphs and words.”

CIRM funding contributed to two of the papers authored by a team at the University of California, San Diego. One of the papers looked at how the genetic structure of stem cells changes as they mature and differentiate into specific types of adult tissue. The other looked at how structural differences determine which of the chromosomes we inherit—the one from mom or the one from dad—has a stronger influence on specific traits. The senior author on the studies, Bing Ren, noted in a university press release that these differences will be important as we think about individualizing therapies:

“Both of these studies provide important considerations for clinicians and researchers who are developing personalized medicines based on a patient’s genomic information”

The consortium’s publications today resulted from a massive data analysis. A press release from the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, describes the effort that required grouping two million predicted areas of change in the chromosomes into 200 sets or modules and then looking for how those modules impacted different cell types.

But if you are still having trouble understanding the concept of the epigenome, I highly recommend taking the five minutes it takes to watch this video produced by Nature. It equates the process to a symphony and what occurs when you change notes and intensity in the score.


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