Scientists studying one facet of how gene activity is orchestrated may be starting to unravel the mystery of how genes interact with the environment to cause disease. They have found that many of these changes are epigenetic in nature. Epigenetic changes may be thought of as chemical switches that can turn on and off the expression of genes in response to environmental factors.
Randy L. Jirtle, PhD, of Duke University Medical Center in Durham, NC, explained that epigenetic changes may allow species to adapt rapidly in response to environmental signals early in life. But some epigenetic changes can increase risk of disease if they lead to dysregulation of genes or if there is a mismatch between the environment during development and the environment encountered in adulthood.
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Chemical changes to DNA, such as the addition of methyl groups (pictured), may alter gene expression without altering the gene’s DNA sequence.
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