What are epigenetics and developmental epigenetics?
Epigenetics and developmental epigenetics are fields of scientific study that look at how factors inside and outside the body cause changes in gene function without changing the sequence of the nucleotides (pronounced NOO-klee-uh-tahydz), that make up a person’s DNA.1 Epigenetic gene changes are different from gene mutations (pronounced myoo-TEY-shuhnz), which change genes by changing the sequence of DNA nucleotides. Epigenetic changes occur when certain molecules are added to or removed from DNA, making it harder or easier for the DNA to be read and translated, and thus used to make proteins essential for cells to function.
Some epigenetic changes occur naturally, as part of normal development and aging. Others occur in response to factors outside the body, such as diet, chemicals, medicines, drugs, exercise, and stress. Scientists refer to these as environmental factors. Epigenetic gene changes can alter the risk of developing certain diseases and health conditions.
Developmental epigenetics looks at the health and developmental effects of epigenetic changes to the DNA of germ cells (sperm or eggs). These changes can occur anytime during the lifespan—in the germ cells of a developing fetus, or in the germ cells of a man or woman just before conception and pregnancy. Epigenetic changes to germ cells can affect fertility, or they can affect certain genes in a developing fetus. Some epigenetic changes to germ cells can lead to children being born with certain developmental disorders. One area of developmental epigenetics studied by the NICHD is the epigenetic contributions to developmental disorders such as Angelman syndrome, Prader-Willi syndrome, and Rett syndrome.
- University of Utah. (2012). Epigenetics: What is epigenetics? Retrieved July 24, 2012, from http://learn.genetics.utah.edu/content/epigenetics [top]