Epigenetic research studies heritable changes in genome function that occur without alterations in DNA sequence. A central emerging concept proposes that there is an 'epigenetic code' that considerably extends the information potential of the genetic code. In the nucleus of eukaryotic cells, genomic DNA is highly folded and compacted with histone and non-histone proteins in a dynamic polymer called chromatin. Diverse biochemical modifications of chromatin (e.g. DNA methylation and histone acetylation, methylation or phosphorylation) occur in response to the environment and regulate gene expression patterns.
The strength of this research programme lies in its focus on molecular mechanisms using complementary model systems. Using the expertise of the NoE members and building on the existing synergies, some of the big questions in modern epigenetic research will be addressed, such as:
- Is there a histone code in addition to the genetic code?
- What are the molecular mechanisms of epigenetic plasticity?
- What is the function of non-coding RNAs?
- What is the molecular nature of cellular memory?
- How are chromatin marks propagated, are there germ-line imprints?
- What is pluripotency?
- How does epigenetic dysfunction affect disease?
- Is pharmacological intervention an attainable objective in the case of epigenetic mis-programming of development or cell proliferation?
There are far-reaching implications of epigenetic research for agriculture and for human biology and disease, including our understanding of stem cells, cancer and aging.