Epigenetics Around the Web: Dolly the sheep and aging. Epigenetics is not genetics. Obstacles to gene editing.

| February 27, 2017
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This article or excerpt is included in the GLP’s daily curated selection of ideologically diverse news, opinion and analysis of biotechnology innovation.

This week’s features include: a clinic that doesn’t know the difference between epigenetics and genetics; lessons about aging from Dolly the sheep; and does epigenetics interfere with gene editing?

We have epigenetic coaches that work with clients and read their genetic data, looking at 500 genetic variations and working with sleep, stress, nutrition, exercise and human movement.

Daniel Stickler of the Apeiron Center for Human Potential

Epigenetics is not genetics

A major problem in epigenetics is that there is a lack of agreement on its exact definition. But one point has universal agreement: Epigenetics is not about what’s in the gene’s sequence. When discussing epigenetics, the actual sequence of a gene is not what scientists investigate. Instead, they target markings on top of the gene or on the proteins that package the gene.

What’s in the gene is genetics, what’s on the gene is epigenetics. The former describes what and the latter describes how much.

But I see this mistake a lot, particularly when someone is trying to sell something. For example, in an article published in the Asheville, N.C.-based Mountain Express, Daniel Stickler described the offerings of his clinic, the Apeiron Center for Human Potential:

We have epigenetic coaches that work with clients and read their genetic data, looking at 500 genetic variations and working with sleep, stress, nutrition, exercise and human movement … environment, thoughts, etc. So we’re venturing into all realms in how we address health.

I’m not sure exactly what an epigenetic coach is, but if you pay someone to look at your epigenetics, they should be looking at your epigenetics — not your genetics. It’s akin to hiring a cardiac coach to analyze your chest hair to give heart-healthy recommendations.

If a store, clinic or health center does not know or understand the difference between personal genetics (i.e. the sequence of your genes) and epigenetics, you may want to think twice before trusting them with your health or money.

Another warning sign: They offer a 5-day course, taught in Costa Rica, for anyone wanting to become an ‘epigenetics coach.’

Dolly’s 20th birthday

February 22 marked the 20th anniversary of the announcement by scientists in Scotland regarding the successful cloning of a sheep. To this day, scientists are still learning valuable lessons about aging, developmental biology, genetics and epigenetics from Dolly and her four “sisters.”

One of the major questions revolved around Dolly’s ‘biological’ age at birth. Would her cells show the age of the donor or of a newborn?

When Dolly died with arthritis and lung cancer after living only half of her expected lifespan, it seemed to confirm the former. However, the success of later clones, including her sisters, tells a different story. A piece published at Salon dove into this question. Overall it’s a quality piece. However, it misses some important epigenetic implications, and instead focuses almost entirely on telomeres, chromosome caps linked to lifespan.

Adam Field previously tackled this question for the Epigenetics Literacy Project. A researcher at the Beatson Institute, Field explained that DNA’s signs of aging, such as environmentally induced mutations, don’t disappear during the cloning process, but epigenetic ones do.

Dolly’s sisters lived full lives, suggesting they were born at age 0. So the fact that only the epigenetic signs of aging are removed during cloning seems to verify the importance of epigenetics in the aging process.

Epigenetics gets in the way of gene editing

Coming soon to a market near you: Non-browning mushrooms. These Agaricus bisporus were developed with the groundbreaking CRISPR gene-editing technology. It is the first crop designed with the technology to receive a green light from US regulators. But it won’t be the last, as there are numerous other foods under development. The next decade may see several new gene-edited crops on the market, offering a range of traits that improve things like drought tolerance and offer higher yields. However, a recent study suggests there are some epigenetics-based obstacles.

Researchers working at the National Agriculture and Food Research Organization in Japan have found that epigenetic tags, such as methyl groups, on some areas of the plant genome can cause interference with gene editors and reduce their efficiency. The study‘s results are unsurprising. Organisms add methyl groups to create a physical barrier for their own proteins and enzymes from turning genes on. The idea that these molecules also block exogenous enzymes and proteins stands to reason. This isn’t to say gene editing of plants (reminder mushrooms aren’t plants) won’t become widespread. But plants do exhibit highly complex epigenetics, particularly when it comes to inheritance. This study shows that scientists may need to keep these tags on the genome in mind when they are trying to improve crops.

This weekly roundup of the latest studies and news in the field of epigenetics originated on our GLP sister site, the Epigenetics Literacy Project

Nicholas Staropoli is the director of the Epigenetics Literacy ProjectHe has an M.A. in biology from DePaul University and a B.S. in biomedical sciences from Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @NickfrmBoston.

The GLP featured this article to reflect the diversity of news, opinion and analysis. The viewpoint is the author’s own. The GLP’s goal is to stimulate constructive discourse on challenging science issues.

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