An epigenetic trait is a stably inherited phenotype resulting from changes in a chromosome without alterations in the DNA sequence. Epigenetic modifications, such as; DNA methylation, together with covalent modification of histones, are thought to alter chromatin density and accessibility of the DNA to cellular machinery, thereby modulating the transcriptional potential of the underlying DNA sequence. As epigenetic marks under environmental influence, epigenetics provides an added layer of variation that might mediate the relationship between genotype and internal and external environmental factors. Integration of our knowledge in genetics, epigenomics and genomics with the use of systems biology tools may present investigators with new powerful tools to study many complex human diseases such as kidney disease.
Environmental influence on developmental plasticity impacts a wide diversity of animal life from insects to humans. We now understand the epigenetic basis for many of these altered phenotypes. The five environmental factors of nutrition, behavior, stress, toxins and stochasticity work individually and in concert to affect the developing epigenome. During early embryogenesis, epigenetic marks, such as DNA methylation, are reset at specific times. Two waves of global demethylation and reestablishment of methylation frame the sensitive times for early environmental influences and will be the focus of this review. Gene transcription, translation and post-translational modification of chromatin remodeling complexes are three mechanisms affected by developmental exposure to environmental factors. To illustrate how changes in the early environment profoundly affect these mechanisms, we provide examples throughout the animal kingdom. Herein we review the history, time points and mechanisms of epigenetic gene-environment interaction.
epigenetics; development; environment; DNA methylation; plasticity; environmental epigenomics
In its widest sense, the term epigenetics describes a range of mechanisms in genome function that do not solely result from the DNA sequence itself. These mechanisms comprise DNA and chromatin modifications and their associated systems, as well as the noncoding RNA machinery. The epigenetic apparatus is essential for controlling normal development and homeostasis, and also provides a means for the organism to integrate and react upon environmental cues. A multitude of functional studies as well as systematic genome-wide mapping of epigenetic marks and chromatin modifiers reveal the importance of epigenomic mechanisms in human pathologies, including inflammatory conditions and musculoskeletal disease such as rheumatoid arthritis. Collectively, these studies pave the way to identify possible novel therapeutic intervention points and to investigate the utility of drugs that interfere with epigenetic signalling not only in cancer, but possibly also in inflammatory and autoimmune diseases.
The beginning of this century was not only marked by the publication of the first draft of the human genome but also set off a decade of intense research on epigenetic phenomena. Apart from DNA methylation, it became clear that many other factors including a wide range of histone modifications, different shades of chromatin accessibility, and a vast suite of noncoding RNAs comprise the epigenome. With the recent advances in sequencing technologies, it has now become possible to analyze many of these features in depth, allowing for the first time the establishment of complete epigenomic profiles for basically every cell type of interest. Here, we will discuss the recent advances that allow comprehensive epigenetic mapping, highlight several projects that set out to better understand the epigenome, and discuss the impact that epigenomic mapping can have on our understanding of both healthy and diseased cells.
epigenome; chromatin accessibility; DNA methylation; ChIP-seq; RNA-seq
The etiologic paradigm of complex human disorders such as autism is that genetic and environmental risk factors are independent and additive, but the interactive effects at the epigenetic interface are largely ignored. Genomic technologies have radically changed perspective on the human genome and how the epigenetic interface may impact complex human disorders. Here, I review recent genomic, environmental and epigenetic findings that suggest a new paradigm of “integrative genomics” in which genetic variation in genomic size may be impacted by dietary and environmental factors that influence the genomic saturation of DNA methylation. Human genomes are highly repetitive, but the interface of large-scale genomic differences with environmental factors that alter the DNA methylome such as dietary folate is under-explored. In addition to obvious direct effects of some environmental toxins on the genome by causing chromosomal breaks, non-mutagenic toxin exposures correlate with DNA hypomethylation that can lead to rearrangements between repeats or increased retrotransposition. Since human neurodevelopment appears to be particularly sensitive to alterations in epigenetic pathways, a further focus will be on how developing neurons may be particularly impacted by even subtle alterations to DNA methylation and proposing new directions towards understanding the quixotic etiology of autism by integrative genomic approaches.
DNA methylation; copy number variation; autism; neurodevelopment; genomics; epigenomics; epigenetics; folate; folic acid; environmental exposures; Alu; MeCP2; LINE-1
Epigenomes are comprised, in part, of all genome-wide chromatin modifications including DNA methylation and histone modifications. Unlike the genome, epigenomes are dynamic during development and differentiation in order to establish and maintain cell type-specific gene expression states that underlie cellular identity and function. Chromatin modifications are particularly labile, providing a mechanism for organisms to respond and adapt to environmental cues. Results from studies in animal models clearly demonstrate that epigenomic variability leads to phenotypic variability including susceptibility to disease that is not recognized at the DNA sequence level. Thus, capturing epigenomic information is invaluable for comprehensively understanding development, differentiation, and disease. Herein, we provide a brief overview of epigenetic processes, how they are relevant to human health, and review studies utilizing technologies that enable epigenome mapping. We conclude by describing feasible applications of epigenome mapping, focusing on epigenome-wide association studies (eGWAS), which have the potential to revolutionize current studies of human diseases and will likely promote the discovery of novel diagnostic, preventative, and treatment strategies.
Epigenetics; genetics; gene expression; gene regulation
Epigenetic states are governed by DNA methylation and a host of modifications to histones bound with DNA. These states are essential for proper developmentally regulated gene expression and are perturbed in many diseases. There is great interest in identifying epigenetic mark placement genome-wide and understanding how these marks vary among cell types, with changes in environment or according to health and disease status. Current epigenomic analyses employ bisulfite sequencing and chromatin immunoprecipitation, but query only one type of epigenetic mark at a time, DNA methylation or histone modifications, and often require substantial input material. To overcome these limitations, we established a method using nanofluidics and multi-color fluorescence microscopy to detect DNA and histones in individual chromatin fragments at about 10 Mbp/min. We demonstrated its utility for epigenetic analysis by identifying DNA methylation on individual molecules. This technique will provide the unprecedented opportunity for genome-wide, simultaneous analysis of multiple epigenetic states on single molecules using femtogram quantities of material.
Single-molecule; chromatin; epigenetics; epigenomics; DNA methylation; nanofluidics; laser-induced fluorescence; methyl binding domain protein; green fluorescent protein; HeLa cell
The complexity of the mammalian genome is regulated by heritable epigenetic mechanisms, which provide the basis for differentiation, development and cellular homeostasis. These mechanisms act on the level of chromatin, by modifying DNA, histone proteins and nucleosome density/composition. During the last decade it became clear that cancer is defined by a variety of epigenetic changes, which occur in early stages of disease and parallel genetic mutations. With the advent of new technologies we are just starting to unravel the cancer epigenome and latest mechanistic findings provide the first clue as to how altered epigenetic patterns might occur in different cancers. Here we review latest findings on chromatin related mechanisms and hypothesize how their impairment might contribute to the altered epigenome of cancer cells.
► Genome-wide analyses reveal epigenomic differences in functional regions. ► Epigenetic patterns occur in large domains in the genome. ► Epigenetic mechanisms are interrelated. ► Mutations of epigenetic enzymes are frequently associated with cancer. ► Changes in nuclear architecture are related to epigenomic alterations in cancer.
Cancer epigenetics; Chromatin; Nuclear architecture; DNA methylation; Histone modification; lncRNA
Epigenetics is the study of heritable changes in gene expression that occur without a change in DNA sequence. Cancer is a multistep process derived from combinational crosstalk between genetic alterations and epigenetic influences through various environmental factors. The observation that epigenetic changes are reversible makes them an attractive target for cancer prevention. Until recently, there have been difficulties studying epigenetic mechanisms in interactions between dietary factors and environmental toxicants. The development of the field of cancer epigenetics during the past decade has been advanced rapidly by genome-wide technologies – which initially employed microarrays but increasingly are using high-throughput sequencing – which helped to improve the quality of the analysis, increase the capacity of sample throughput, and reduce the cost of assays. It is particularly true for applications of cancer epigenetics in epidemiologic studies that examine the relationship among diet, epigenetics, and cancer because of the issues of tissue heterogeneity, the often limiting amount of DNA samples, and the significant cost of the analyses. This review offers an overview of the state of the science in nutrition, environmental toxicants, epigenetics, and cancer to stimulate further exploration of this important and developing area of science. Additional epidemiologic research is needed to clarify the relationship between these complex epigenetic mechanisms and cancer.
cancer; epigenetics; diet; nutrient; toxicants
Multiple epigenetic states can be associated with the same genome, and transmitted through the germline for generations, to create the phenomenon of epigenetic inheritance. This form of inheritance is mediated by complex and highly diverse components of the chromosome that associate with DNA, control its transcription, and are inherited alongside it. But, how extensive, and how stable, is the information carried in the germline by the epigenome? Several known examples of epigenetic inheritance demonstrate that it has the ability to create selectable traits, and thus to mediate Darwinian evolution. Here we discuss the possibility that epigenetic inheritance is responsible for some stable characteristics of species, focusing on a recent comparison of the human and chimpanzee methylomes which reveals that somatic methylation states are related to methylation states in the germline. Interpretation of this finding highlights the potential significance of germline epigenetic states, as well as the challenge of investigating a form of inheritance with complex and unfamiliar rules.
Human embryonic stem cells (hESCs) share an identical genome with lineage-committed cells, yet possess the remarkable properties of self-renewal and pluripotency. The diverse cellular properties in different cells have been attributed to their distinct epigenomes, but how much epigenomes differ remains unclear. Here, we report that epigenomic landscapes in hESC and lineage committed cells are drastically different. By comparing the chromatin modification profiles and DNA methylomes in hESCs and primary fibroblasts, we find that nearly one-third of the genome differs in chromatin structure. Most changes arise from dramatic redistributions of repressive H3K9me3 and H3K27me3 marks, which form blocks that significantly expand in fibroblasts. A large number of potential regulatory sequences also exhibit a high degree of dynamics in chromatin modifications and DNA methylation. Additionally, we observe novel, context-dependent relationships between DNA methylation and chromatin modifications. Our results provide new insights into epigenetic mechanisms underlying properties of pluripotency and cell-fate commitment.
Epigenetic RNA based gene silencing mechanisms play a major role in genome stability and control of gene expression. Transcriptional gene silencing via RNA-directed DNA methylation (RdDM) guides the epigenetic regulation of the genome in response to disease states, growth, developmental and stress signals. RdDM machinery is composed of proteins that produce and modify 24-nt-long siRNAs, recruit the RdDM complex to genomic targets, methylate DNA and remodel chromatin. The final DNA methylation pattern is determined by either DNA methyltransferase alone or by the combined action of DNA methyltransferases and demethylases. The dynamic interaction between RdDM and demethylases may render the plant epigenome plastic to growth, developmental and environmental cues. The epigenome plasticity may allow the plant genome to assume many epigenomes and to have the right epigenome at the right time in response to intracellular or extracellular stimuli. This review discusses recent advances in RdDM research and considers future perspectives.
epigenetics; RdDM; DNA methylation; DNA demethylation; epialleles; abiotic stress; transgenerational inheritance
The Epigenomics database at the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) is a new resource that has been created to serve as a comprehensive public resource for whole-genome epigenetic data sets (www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/epigenomics). Epigenetics is the study of stable and heritable changes in gene expression that occur independently of the primary DNA sequence. Epigenetic mechanisms include post-translational modifications of histones, DNA methylation, chromatin conformation and non-coding RNAs. It has been observed that misregulation of epigenetic processes has been associated with human disease. We have constructed the new resource by selecting the subset of epigenetics-specific data from general-purpose archives, such as the Gene Expression Omnibus, and Sequence Read Archives, and then subjecting them to further review, annotation and reorganization. Raw data is processed and mapped to genomic coordinates to generate ‘tracks’ that are a visual representation of the data. These data tracks can be viewed using popular genome browsers or downloaded for local analysis. The Epigenomics resource also provides the user with a unique interface that allows for intuitive browsing and searching of data sets based on biological attributes. Currently, there are 69 studies, 337 samples and over 1100 data tracks from five well-studied species that are viewable and downloadable in Epigenomics.
While our genetic code determines a great deal of who and what we are, it does not act alone. It depends heavily on the epigenome, an elaborate marking of the DNA that controls the genome’s functions. Because it is sensitive to the environment, the epigenome is a powerful link and relay between our genes and our surroundings. Epigenetic marks drive biological functions and features as diverse as memory, development, and disease susceptibility; thus, the nurture aspect of the nature/nurture interaction makes essential contributions to our body and behaviors. As scientists have learned more about how the epigenome works, they have begun to develop therapies that may lead to new approaches to treating common human conditions.
Fuelled by new sequencing technologies, epigenome mapping projects are revealing epigenomic variation at all levels of biological complexity, from species to cells. Comparisons of methylation profiles among species reveal evolutionary conservation of gene body methylation patterns, pointing to the fundamental role of epigenomes in gene regulation. At the human population level, epigenomic changes provide footprints of the effects of genomic variants within the vast non-protein coding fraction of the genome while comparisons of the epigenomes of parents and their offspring point to quantitative epigenomic parent-of-origin effects confounding classical Mendelian genetics. At the organismal level, comparisons of epigenomes from diverse cell types provide insights into cellular differentiation. Finally, comparisons of epigenomes from monozygotic twins help dissect genetic and environmental influences on human phenotypes and longitudinal comparisons reveal aging-associated epigenomic drift. The development of new bioinformatic frameworks for comparative epigenome analysis is putting epigenome maps within reach of researchers across a wide spectrum of biological disciplines.
Natural populations are known to differ not only in DNA but also in their chromatin-associated epigenetic marks. When such inter-individual epigenomic differences (or “epi-polymorphisms”) are observed, their stability is usually not known: they may or may not be reprogrammed over time or upon environmental changes. In addition, their origin may be purely epigenetic, or they may result from regulatory variation encoded in the DNA. Studying epi-polymorphisms requires, therefore, an assessment of their nature and stability. Here we estimate the stability of yeast epi-polymorphisms of chromatin acetylation, and we provide a genome-by-epigenome map of their genetic control. A transient epi-drug treatment was able to reprogram acetylation variation at more than one thousand nucleosomes, whereas a similar amount of variation persisted, distinguishing “labile” from “persistent” epi-polymorphisms. Hundreds of genetic loci underlied acetylation variation at 2,418 nucleosomes either locally (in cis) or distantly (in trans), and this genetic control overlapped only partially with the genetic control of gene expression. Trans-acting regulators were not necessarily associated with genes coding for chromatin modifying enzymes. Strikingly, “labile” and “persistent” epi-polymorphisms were associated with poor and strong genetic control, respectively, showing that genetic modifiers contribute to persistence. These results estimate the amount of natural epigenomic variation that can be lost after transient environmental exposures, and they reveal the complex genetic architecture of the DNA–encoded determinism of chromatin epi-polymorphisms. Our observations provide a basis for the development of population epigenetics.
Chemical modifications of chromatin, such as DNA methylation, incorporation of histone variants, or post-translational modifications of histone proteins, constitute the “epigenome” and confer specific properties to genome functions. Epigenomes differ from one individual to another, opening the exciting perspective to decipher the origins of these differences and their impact on physiology. However, population epigenomics remains challenging because, unlike DNA mutations, epigenetic hallmarks are themselves regulated. They can change upon particular environmental conditions, they may be inherited epigenetically, or they may result from activities encoded in the DNA. Thus, estimating the stability of intra-species epigenomic variation and its dependence on DNA polymorphisms is essential. Using a chemical perturbation of yeast cells as an experimental model system, we found that acetylation variation was persistent at some nucleosomes and labile at other nucleosomes. By studying a segregating population, we mapped DNA polymorphisms that affected chromatin acetylation levels at numerous nucleosomes. Strikingly, nucleosomes showing persistent variation of acetylation corresponded to those for which acetylation was under genetic control. Thus, part of epigenomic variation is stabilized by a DNA–encoded determinism, and another part can be reprogrammed if environmental perturbations are experienced. These results provide a necessary basis for upcoming developments in population epigenomics.
In the last decade, biochemical studies have revealed that epigenetic modifications including histone modifications, histone variants and DNA methylation form a complex network that regulate the state of chromatin and processes that depend on it including transcription and DNA replication. Currently, a large number of these epigenetic modifications are being mapped in a variety of cell lines at different stages of development using high throughput sequencing by members of the ENCODE consortium, the NIH Roadmap Epigenomics Program and the Human Epigenome Project. An extremely promising and underexplored area of research is the application of machine learning methods, which are designed to construct predictive network models, to these large-scale epigenomic data sets.
Using a ChIP-Seq data set of 20 histone lysine and arginine methylations and histone variant H2A.Z in human CD4+ T-cells, we built predictive models of gene expression as a function of histone modification/variant levels using Multilinear (ML) Regression and Multivariate Adaptive Regression Splines (MARS). Along with extensive crosstalk among the 20 histone methylations, we found H4R3me2 was the most and second most globally repressive histone methylation among the 20 studied in the ML and MARS models, respectively. In support of our finding, a number of experimental studies show that PRMT5-catalyzed symmetric dimethylation of H4R3 is associated with repression of gene expression. This includes a recent study, which demonstrated that H4R3me2 is required for DNMT3A-mediated DNA methylation--a known global repressor of gene expression.
In stark contrast to univariate analysis of the relationship between H4R3me2 and gene expression levels, our study showed that the regulatory role of some modifications like H4R3me2 is masked by confounding variables, but can be elucidated by multivariate/systems-level approaches.
Both genome-wide genetic and epigenetic alterations are fundamentally important for the development of cancers, but the interdependence of these aberrations is poorly understood. Glioblastomas and other cancers with the CpG island methylator phenotype (CIMP) constitute a subset of tumours with extensive epigenomic aberrations and a distinct biology1–3. Glioma CIMP (G-CIMP) is a powerful determinant of tumour pathogenicity, but the molecular basis of G-CIMP remains unresolved. Here we show that mutation of a single gene, isocitrate dehydrogenase 1 (IDH1), establishes G-CIMP by remodelling the methylome. This remodelling results in reorganization of the methylome and transcriptome. Examination of the epigenome of a large set of intermediate-grade gliomas demonstrates a distinct G-CIMP phenotype that is highly dependent on the presence of IDH mutation. Introduction of mutant IDH1 into primary human astrocytes alters specific histone marks, induces extensive DNA hypermethylation, and reshapes the methylome in a fashion that mirrors the changes observed in G-CIMP-positive lower-grade gliomas. Furthermore, the epigenomic alterations resulting from mutant IDH1 activate key gene expression programs, characterize G-CIMP-positive proneural glioblastomas but not other glioblastomas, and are predictive of improved survival. Our findings demonstrate that IDH mutation is the molecular basis of CIMP in gliomas, provide a framework for understanding oncogenesis in these gliomas, and highlight the interplay between genomic and epigenomic changes in human cancers.
Through epigenetic modifications, specific long-term phenotypic consequences can arise from environmental influence on slowly evolving genomic DNA. Heritable epigenetic information regulates nucleosomal arrangement around DNA and determines patterns of gene silencing or active transcription. One of the greatest challenges in the study of epigenetics as it relates to disease is the enormous diversity of proteins, histone modifications and DNA methylation patterns associated with each unique maladaptive phenotype. This is further complicated by a limitless combination of environmental cues that could alter the epigenome of specific cell types, tissues, organs and systems. In addition, complexities arise from the interpretation of studies describing analogous but not identical processes in flies, plants, worms, yeast, ciliated protozoans, tumor cells and mammals. This review integrates fundamental basic concepts of epigenetics with specific focus on how the epigenetic machinery interacts and operates in continuity to silence or activate gene expression. Topics covered include the connection between DNA methylation, methyl-CpG-binding proteins, transcriptional repression complexes, histone residues, histone modifications that mediate gene repression or relaxation, histone core variant stability, H1 histone linker flexibility, FACT complex, nucleosomal remodeling complexes, HP1 and nuclear lamins.
DNA methyltransferases; methyl-CpG-binding proteins; H2A.Z; high mobility group proteins; SWI-SNF; nucleosomal remodeling complexes; heterochromatin proteins; epigenetics
Hormones are essential regulators of many behaviors. Steroids bind either to nuclear or membrane receptors while peptides primarily act via membrane receptors. After a ligand binds, the conformational change in the receptor initiates changes in cell signaling cascades (membrane receptors) or direct alternations in DNA transcription (steroid receptors). Changes in gene transcription that result are responsible for protein production and ultimately behavioral modifications. A significant part of how hormones affect DNA transcription is via epigenetic modifications of DNA and/or the chromatin in which it is entwined. These alterations lead to transcriptional changes that ultimately define the phenotype and function of a given cell. Importantly we now know that environmental stimuli influence epigenetic marks, which in the context of neuroendocrinology can lead to behavioral changes. Importantly tracking epigenetic states and profiling the epigenome within cells requires the use of epigenetic methodologies and subsequent data analysis. Here we describe the techniques of particular importance in the mapping of DNA methylation, histone modifications and occupancy of chromatin bound effector proteins that regulate gene expression. For researchers wanting to move into these levels of analysis we discuss the application of modern sequencing technologies applied in assays such as chromatin immunoprecipitation and the bioinformatics analysis involved in the rich datasets generated.
Epigenetics; epigenomics; bioinformatics; DNA methylation; bisulfite sequencing; chromatin Immunoprecipitation; ChIP-sequencing
The scope of paternal contributions during early embryonic development has long been considered limited. Dramatic changes in chromatin structure throughout spermatogenesis have been thought to leave the sperm void of complex layers of epigenetic regulation over the DNA blueprint, thus leaving the balance of that regulation to the oocyte. However, recent work in the fields of epigenetics and male factor infertility has placed this long-held, and now controversial dogma, in a new light. Elegant studies investigating chromatin and epigenetic modifications in the developing sperm cell have provided new insights that may establish a more critical role for the paternal epigenome in the developing embryo. DNA methylation, histone tail modifications, targeted histone retention and protamine incorporation into the chromatin have great influence in the developing sperm cell. Perturbations in the establishment and/or maintenance of any of these epigenetic marks have been demonstrated to affect fertility status, ranging in severity from mild to catastrophic. Sperm require this myriad of chromatin structural changes not only to serve a protective role to DNA throughout spermatogenesis and future delivery to the egg, but also, it appears, to contribute to the developmental program of the future embryo. This review will focus on our current understanding of the epigenetics of sperm. We will discuss sperm-specific chromatin modifications that result in genes essential to development being poised for activation early in embryonic development, the disruption of which may result in reduced fecundity.
chromatin; DNA methylation; embryogenesis; epigenetics; histone modification; male infertility
The epigenome plays a vital role in helping to maintain and regulate cell functions in all organisms. Alleles with differing epigenetic marks in the same nucleus do not function in isolation but can interact in trans to modify the epigenetic state of one or both alleles. This is particularly evident when two divergent epigenomes come together in a hybrid resulting in thousands of alterations to the methylome. These changes mainly involve the methylation patterns at one allele being changed to resemble the methylation patterns of the other allele, in processes we have termed trans-chromosomal methylation (TCM) and trans-chromosomal demethylation (TCdM). These processes are primarily modulated by siRNAs and the RNA directed DNA methylation pathway. Drawing from other examples of trans-allelic interactions, we describe the process of TCM and TCdM and the effect such changes can have on genome activity. Trans-allelic epigenetic interactions may be a common occurrence in many biological systems.
Arabidopsis thaliana; DNA methylation; 24nt siRNA; hybrids; heterosis; paramutation; RdDM; epiRILs; epialleles
Epigenetic mechanisms refer to the complex and interrelated molecular processes that dynamically modulate gene expression and function within every cell in the body. These regulatory systems represent the long-sought-after molecular interfaces that mediate gene × environment interactions. Changes in the epigenome throughout life are responsible not only for controlling normal development, adult homeostasis, and aging but also for mediating responses to injury. Emerging evidence implicates a spectrum of epigenetic processes in the pathophysiology of stroke. In this review, we describe conventional epigenetic mechanisms (including DNA methylation, histone code modifications, nucleosome remodeling, and higher-order chromatin formation) and highlight the emerging roles each of these processes play in the pathobiology of stroke. We suggest that understanding these mechanisms may be important for discovering more sensitive and specific biomarkers for risk, onset, and progression of stroke. In addition, we highlight epigenetic approaches for stroke therapy, including the inhibition of DNA methyltransferase and histone deacetylase enzyme activities. These therapeutic approaches are still in their infancy, but preliminary results suggest that contemporary agents targeting these pathways can regulate the deployment of stress responses that modulate neural cell viability and promote brain repair and functional reorganization. Indeed, these agents even appear to orchestrate sophisticated cognitive functions, including learning and memory.
Genes store heritable information, but actual gene expression often depends on many so-called epigenetic factors, both physical and chemical, external to DNA. Epigenetic changes can be both reversible and heritable. The genome is associated with a physical object (DNA) with a specific location, whereas the epigenome is a global, systemic, entity. Furthermore, genomic information is tied to specific coded molecular sequences stored in DNA. Although epigenomic information can be associated with certain non-DNA molecular sequences, it is mostly not. Therefore, there does not seem to be a stored ‘epigenetic programme’ in the information-theoretic sense. Instead, epigenomic control is—to a large extent—an emergent self-organizing phenomenon, and the real-time operation of the epigenetic ‘project’ lies in the realm of nonlinear bifurcations, interlocking feedback loops, distributed networks, top-down causation and other concepts familiar from the complex systems theory. Lying at the heart of vital eukaryotic processes are chromatin structure, organization and dynamics. Epigenetics provides striking examples of how bottom-up genetic and top-down epigenetic causation intermingle. The fundamental question then arises of how causal efficacy should be attributed to biological information. A proposal is made to implement explicit downward causation by coupling information directly to the dynamics of chromatin, thus permitting the coevolution of dynamical laws and states, and opening up a new sector of dynamical systems theory that promises to display rich self-organizing and self-complexifying behaviour.
epigenetics; emergence; causality
Epigenetic changes to gene expression can result in heritable phenotypic characteristics that are not encoded in the DNA itself, but rather by biochemical modifications to the DNA or associated chromatin proteins. Interposed between genes and environment, these epigenetic modifications can be influenced by environmental factors to affect phenotype for multiple generations. This raises the possibility that epigenetic states provide a substrate for natural selection, with the potential to participate in the rapid adaptation of species to changes in environment. Any direct test of this hypothesis would require the ability to measure epigenetic states over evolutionary timescales. Here we describe the first single-base resolution of cytosine methylation patterns in an ancient mammalian genome, by bisulphite allelic sequencing of loci from late Pleistocene Bison priscus remains. Retrotransposons and the differentially methylated regions of imprinted loci displayed methylation patterns identical to those derived from fresh bovine tissue, indicating that methylation patterns are preserved in the ancient DNA. Our findings establish the biochemical stability of methylated cytosines over extensive time frames, and provide the first direct evidence that cytosine methylation patterns are retained in DNA from ancient specimens. The ability to resolve cytosine methylation in ancient DNA provides a powerful means to study the role of epigenetics in evolution.