Why the Federal Environment Agency wants to know more about it
Origin of epigenetics
Epigenetics is a Greek term, which in literal translation means ‘in addition to genetics’. Epigenetics is a field in biology which focuses on inherited changes in the gene expression caused by mechanisms other than changes in the DNA sequence. It seeks to explain how environmental exposures can modify gene expression and influence cell properties. Extensive research in this field would contribute to the protection of public health, now and for the sake of future generations.
Genetics focuses on the genetic material DNA and the inheritance of genetic characteristics. Epigenetics on the other hand provides additional information that determines gene expression.
This additional information – the epigenetic marks - can be seen as a second code overlaid on top of the DNA sequence code. They consist e.g. of chemical molecules attached to either the DNA itself or to DNA-binding proteins.
Epigenetic marks may, for example, silence certain DNA sequences. All epigenetic marks together are called the epigenetic pattern. As the DNA itself, epigenetic information can also be heritable to succeeding generations.
Epigenetics refutes thus the notion that environmental influences cannot exert long-term changes on the genome.
Mankind is exposed to a large number of environmental influences which have an impact on epigenetic mechanisms. Benzene or endocrine disruptors such as Bisphenol A, can alter the epigenetic pattern. These defective marks can have a negative impact on human health and, as a result, the risk of cancer and congenital birth defects may increase. Epigenetic changes may also multiply over time and, in concert, trigger diseases.
Research on epigenetic mechanisms is still in its infancy. The importance accorded by the Federal Environment Agency to this relatively new field in biology is due to its concern with protecting public health. Both positive and negative environmental factors can exert a lasting effect on health, which is why it is critical to determine which factors cause epigenetic changes. In this regard Federal Environment Agency is encouraging extensive research in this complex area:
- Interdisciplinary collaboration,
- Establishment of a network on environment and epigenetics,
- Prospective studies, and
- Basic research in the field of epigenetics.