21 December 2013
|Author: Nada Alaa El-Nyehy|
Epigenetics: To be, or not to be? Nada Alaa El-Ngehy, the participant representing Egypt at LIYSF 2013 writes about this highly topical issue.
“Would it be a stronger motivation for us to go to the gym, when we know we’re not only doing it for ourselves, but for our grandchildren as well?”
Who am I? What makes me the way I am? – are questions that have always haunted mankind, and scientists are not an exception. In their own way, scientists have been trying to answer these questions. Their search has led them to the discovery of genes, the information banks where all our traits are coded. Then, the mystery of the exact structure of DNA and the mechanisms of gene expression was solved, which lead to major scientific victories in understanding how our bodies function. But, scientists were nowhere near done. In fact, they found a higher regulatory mechanism: Epigenetics. With a literal translation of: ‘on top of’ or ‘in addition to’ genetics, epigenetics are defined as: changes in gene activity which are not caused by changes in the DNA sequence.
If you could imagine the genome as a computer, epigenetics would be the software that tells it what to do, and the ways to do that include histone modification and DNA methylation among other mechanisms. Histones are protein particles around which the DNA is wrapped. This wrapping is essential, otherwise the very long DNA wouldn’t fit inside the nucleus but, during DNA transcription the wrapping is loosened to allow the transcription mechanisms to work. So, if histone modification caused maintenance of a tight wrap, that DNA would not be expressed. On the other hand, addition of a methyl group to the DNA resembles putting a giant rock on a train railway! A methyl group simply says to the transcription mechanisms: ‘Stop right there’. These epigenetic mechanisms allowed scientists to understand why we have different types of cells in our bodies, despite the fact that all of them have the same genome. It is the epigenetic mechanisms working differently in every cell to make different parts of the genome active, and others silent, raising the difference in characters and functions between those types.
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