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Setting the stage for passing on epigenetic information to the next generation

Posted June 21, 2013


In a comprehensive study, scientists at the Friedrich Miescher Institute for Biomedical Research identified the molecular logic underlying the retention of histones and their marks during the development of the sperm. These findings set the stage to address a fundamental question in epigenetics: whether and how chromatin marks in sperm are passed on to the next generation and contribute the epigenetic inheritance of traits shaped by experience or the environment. Their results were recently published online in Nature Structural & Molecular Biology.

The saying “like father, like son” tells the truth to a degree that goes beyond what many of us grasp. Did you know that if a man overeats in the years before puberty, this has a direct influence on the health of his future sons and grandsons? The Överkalix study, conducted in a remote village in Sweden, reaches exactly this conclusion: these sons and grandsons—but not the daughters and granddaughters—die more often from diabetes or cardiovascular diseases irrespective of their own eating behavior. “Epigenetics” has been the magic term to explain this phenomenon. However, whether and how the mediators of epigenetics, modifications on DNA or histones, or changes in RNA, are passed on from one generation to the next has remained a big question mark.

Antoine Peters, group leader at the Friedrich Miescher Institute for Biomedical Research and professor at the University of Basel, describes in a study in Nature Structural & Molecular Biology how chromatin based epigenetic information is retained during the development of the sperm that eventually may be passed on to the next generation.

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