The Age of Epigenetics

Fifty years after the discovery of DNA’s structure, genes remain crucial to understanding complex diseases. Indeed, epigenetics – the study of mechanisms for changing the way a cell develops without altering the genetic code – can be used to explain, and potentially treat, a wide variety of diseases, from asthma to cancer.

LONDON – Fifty-one years ago, James Watson, Maurice Wilkins, and Francis Crick were awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine for their discovery of DNA’s structure – a breakthrough that heralded the age of the gene. Since then, the field of genetics has advanced significantly, particularly as a result of the global Human Genome Project, which in 2003 identified all of the roughly 23,000 genes and three billion chemical base pairs in human DNA in order to screen for many rare diseases.

But, despite evidence that most diseases have a clear genetic component, only a fraction of the genes that explain them have been found. And scientists in the field remain puzzled by the fact that most identical twins (who share 100% of their genes) do not die from the same diseases. As a result, many in the scientific community are beginning to predict a decline in the role of the gene in pinpointing the root causes of diseases.

It is too soon to discount genetics, however, because the science of “epigenetics” – the study of mechanisms for turning genes on and off, thus changing the way a cell develops without altering the genetic code – is gaining traction. Indeed, the 2012 Nobel Prize in Medicine was awarded to John Gurdon and Shinya Yamanaka for revolutionizing scientists’ understanding of how cells develop by reprogramming DNA and cells without altering their genetic structure.

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