Buzzword overuse alert: epigenetics

The term “epigenetics” has come up a lot here on the Lab Land blog.

In June a discussion came up on Twitter about scientific terms that are overused. I began to wonder whether I was contributing to the problem and may need to tighten up my use of the word “epigenetics.” (Thanks to Brendan Maher for bringing it up and Helen Pearson for writing part of this 2008 Nature piece.)

As a starting point, geneticist Peng Jin recently set the stage with a review on “Unlocking epigenetic codes in neurogenesis” in the journal Genes & Development:

The word “epigenetics” was first proposed by Waddington in the middle of the 20th century; the term is derived from the Greek words for “over” or “above” genetics to describe the molecular events involved in early undifferentiated embryonic development. Epigenetics is now broadly defined as the heritable changes in gene expression and function that do not alter DNA sequence.

The key word there is heritable: transmitted from parent to child, or at the cellular level, from parent cell to daughter cell.

We have to think about what makes any cell in the body have the pattern of gene activity it does. A big part of that comes from all the proteins, such as transcription factors, bound to the chromosomal DNA. Forming a sperm or egg takes all that structure and information away. Cell division takes SOME of the information away. Epigenetics has to provide information that is maintained through these disruptive processes.

Thus, phenomena like the Dutch Hunger Winter, the imprinting involved in Prader-Willi vs Angelman syndrome, or the recent discovery of inheritance of smell sensitivity in mice here at Emory qualify unambiguously. However, any time DNA methylation is involved, is the term epigenetic appropriate? What about histone modifications or noncoding RNAs? Consider this post an invitation for anyone with an informed opinion to agree or disagree.

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Quinn Eastman

Science Writer, Research Communications
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