Today, the NIH announced a new initiative focused on developing the field of epigenomics in the US.
What is epigenomics, you ask?
The press release defines the field:
And an example might help:
Epigenetics focuses on processes that regulate how and when certain genes are turned on and turned off, while epigenomics pertains to analysis of epigenetic changes across many genes in a cell or entire organism.
Epigenetic processes control normal growth and development. Diet and exposure to environmental chemicals throughout all stages of human development among other factors can cause epigenetic changes that may turn on or turn off certain genes. Changes in genes that would normally protect against a disease, as a result, could make people more susceptible to developing that disease later in life. Researchers also believe some epigenetic changes can be passed on from generation to generation.
...epigenetics may help explain how some people are predisposed to certain illnesses such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes and hypertension. Several studies have documented that children born to mothers who did not get adequate nutrition during pregnancy were more likely to develop type 2 diabetes and coronary heart disease later in life. The theory is that epigenetic changes occur in genes that regulate sugar absorption and metabolism during fetal development that allow for survival with little food, but when encountered with an environment where food was plentiful these changes led to development of diabetes. (See scientific illustration of how epigenetic mechanisms can affect health at http://nihroadmap.nih.gov/epigenomics/epigeneticmechanisms.asp .)More on epigenomics and epigenetics:
- NIH Roadmap: Epigenomics
- Biology Online: Introduction - from genome to epigenome - this intro notes "
The term ‘epigenetics’ was first introduced by Conrad Waddington in the 1940s to describe ‘the interactions of genes with their environment, which bring the phenotype into being’"
- the Human Epigenome Project