Along with a DNA blueprint from our mothers and fathers we also inherit vital instructions on how to use this blueprint, according to a new international study involving scientists from UNSW.
The study describes the extra layer of information that we inherit from our parents, which is found within the DNA packaging.
The researchers used the fruit fly, Drosophila, to investigate how instructions other than DNA are passed from parent fruit flies to their offspring. Fruit flies have many biological mechanisms that are very similar to those in humans
They found that additional instructions are contained in the proteins that package DNA, and that these instructions are not only carried to the next generation, but that embryos cannot develop and survive without them.
UNSW Conjoint Senior Lecturer Dr Ozren Bogdanovic, with Sydney’s Garvan Institute of Medical Research, contributed to the study, which was led by Dr Nicola Iovino at the Max Planck Institute of Immunobiology and Epigenetics in Germany.
“Think of epigenetics as an overlay of information for the DNA blueprint, telling our cells precisely when to switch each gene on or off,” Dr Bogdanovic says.
“The big question is whether these epigenetic changes can be transmitted to our children – and how.
“Over the past few years, we’ve seen growing observational evidence that environmental influences – diet, stress or trauma, for instance – can lead to changes in individuals that are passed down to their children and grandchildren. However, the biological mechanisms involved are still poorly understood.”
The researchers were able to delete certain epigenetic markers from fruit fly embryos and showed that embryo development couldn’t progress without them.
“Thousands of fruit fly genes have human equivalents, so it is likely that what we observe in fruit flies is also happening in some way in people,” Dr Bogdanovic says.
This is one of only a very few conclusive reports to demonstrate epigenetic mechanisms of transgenerational inheritance in animals, and the first one to comprehensively reveal the biological consequences of the loss of such a mechanism.
Professor Susan Clark, Head of Garvan’s Genomics and Epigenetics Division and President of the Australian Epigenetics Alliance, says the findings have far-reaching implications.
“This works signifies a huge step forward in our understanding of transgenerational epigenetic inheritance and may in part explain how the food we eat, the stresses we endure and our overall lifestyle could impact on the health of future generations,” Professor Clark says.
Read more about this breakthrough research here. Story credit: University of New South Wales newsroom.
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