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What is epigenetics?

Epigenetics, also known as epigenomics, focuses on DNA changes that do not involve alterations in the underlying sequence. Both DNA bases and the proteins interacting with it can undergo chemical modifications that alter gene activation and deactivation. Some of these epigenetic modifications can be passed from a parent cell to a daughter cell during cell division or even from one generation to the next. The complete set of epigenetic changes in a genome is known as the epigenome.

The term "epigenetics" was coined in 1942 by Conrad Waddington, a British developmental biologist, to describe the effects of external influences, such as diet and the environment, on organism development. Over the decades, it has become increasingly clear that epigenetic information plays a crucial role in determining cellular identity, being much more significant than initially thought.

Epigenetics and Health

Epigenetics plays a fundamental role in health regulation by influencing gene expression without altering the DNA sequence. Epigenetic changes may account for various biological phenomena, thus having significant implications for human health.

Epigenetic mechanisms are responsible for regulating the functioning of our cells.

In terms of diseases, disruptions in epigenetic patterns have been associated with various conditions, from cardiovascular diseases and diabetes to different types of cancer. The ability of certain environmental factors, such as chemical exposure or diet, to induce gene expression modifications through epigenetic changes can contribute to the development of chronic diseases.

Epigenetics has also proven crucial in understanding the inheritance and transmission of health-related traits from one generation to another. Studies suggest that life experiences and environmental exposure can leave epigenetic marks that affect not only the affected individual but also their offspring.

Moreover, research in epigenetics has opened new perspectives in personalized medicine. Understanding individual epigenetic profiles can enable more precise and personalized therapeutic approaches tailored to the specific needs of each patient.

Regulation of Gene Expression

Chromatin, the way DNA is organized in the cell nucleus, consists of nucleosomes as its basic unit. It exists in two main forms based on its degree of condensation: heterochromatin, highly condensed and inactive, and euchromatin, slightly condensed and active.

"Epigenetic regulation" is related to changes in chromatin configuration. The condensation state of chromatin plays a crucial role in determining whether a gene will be expressed, thus affecting expression levels.

Epigenetic mechanisms, which govern gene expression without modifying the DNA sequence, can also contribute to the development of diseases.

When chromatin is highly condensed, termed heterochromatin, DNA cannot be transcribed into RNA, preventing the expression of genetic information in the form of proteins and resulting in gene silencing.

Conversely, when chromatin is slightly condensed, known as euchromatin, DNA can be transcribed into RNA, allowing the expression of genetic information in the form of proteins.

In summary, the future of epigenetics appears promising for transforming medicine by enabling personalized interventions in gene expression. While it presents exciting possibilities for addressing diseases, it also poses ethical challenges that must be carefully considered in practical applications.

Written by Irene Rodríguez García

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