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Elusive inheritance: Transgenerational effects and epigenetic inheritance in human environmental disease

Suzanne N Martos, Wan-Yee Tang, Zhibin Wang
Progress in Biophysics and Molecular Biology 2015, 118 (1-2): 44-54
25792089
Epigenetic mechanisms involving DNA methylation, histone modification, histone variants and nucleosome positioning, and noncoding RNAs regulate cell-, tissue-, and developmental stage-specific gene expression by influencing chromatin structure and modulating interactions between proteins and DNA. Epigenetic marks are mitotically inherited in somatic cells and may be altered in response to internal and external stimuli. The idea that environment-induced epigenetic changes in mammals could be inherited through the germline, independent of genetic mechanisms, has stimulated much debate. Many experimental models have been designed to interrogate the possibility of transgenerational epigenetic inheritance and provide insight into how environmental exposures influence phenotypes over multiple generations in the absence of any apparent genetic mutation. Unexpected molecular evidence has forced us to reevaluate not only our understanding of the plasticity and heritability of epigenetic factors, but of the stability of the genome as well. Recent reviews have described the difference between transgenerational and intergenerational effects; the two major epigenetic reprogramming events in the mammalian lifecycle; these two events making transgenerational epigenetic inheritance of environment-induced perturbations rare, if at all possible, in mammals; and mechanisms of transgenerational epigenetic inheritance in non-mammalian eukaryotic organisms. This paper briefly introduces these topics and mainly focuses on (1) transgenerational phenotypes and epigenetic effects in mammals, (2) environment-induced intergenerational epigenetic effects, and (3) the inherent difficulties in establishing a role for epigenetic inheritance in human environmental disease.

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