In the early 1800s, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck popularized the concept of “inheritance of acquired characteristics” as a means to explain evolutionary adaptation. This idea was largely abandoned after the modern evolutionary synthesis, but the field of Epigenetics is now re-exploring whether acquired traits (epigenetic marks) can be inherited. It is undeniable that epigenetic change accompanies embryonic development where coordinated gene expression requires the interplay of sequence specific DNA binding factors and chromatin modifying enzymes. This epigenome marking machinery also guards against the parasitic transposable elements that make up ~40% of mammalian genomes and pose a threat to genomic stability. Our primary interest is to explore the mechanisms underlying the regulation of cellular and retrotransposon gene expression, with an emphasis on the role of epigenome modifying enzymes during “natural” and “artificial” reprogramming.
We use a multidisciplinary approach that combines genetics, molecular biology, biochemistry, and cell biology to explore fundamental mechanisms of gene regulation and epigenetic inheritance during embryo development. Furthermore, we are taking advantage of genetically engineered embryonic stem (ES) cells and induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells which can be differentiated into specific cell types to model early cell fate decisions. These cells can be grown in huge numbers to allow biochemical interrogation of the epigenome.