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How the Environment Affects Our DNA

Jul 21, 2014 01:32 PM EDT

The environment can affect our development and the traits we inherit from our parents, according to new research, and using a new, powerful single-cell technique, scientists are just beginning to understand life's impact on our DNA.

Researchers at the BBSRC-funded Babraham Institute, in collaboration with the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute Single Cell Genomics Centre, believe their approach will boost understanding of embryonic development, as well as enhance clinical applications like cancer therapy and fertility treatments.

The technique can be used to map all of the "epigenetic marks" on the DNA within a single cell - chemical tags or proteins that mark DNA and act as a kind of cellular memory. They are important for turning genes on and off and determining how the cell develops.

But, environmental factors such as diet can alter where epigenetic tags are laid down on DNA and thereby influence an organism's long-term health.

By mapping out these epigenetic marks researchers can better understand their processes, leading to a slew of improved treatments and therapies.

"Epigenetics research has mostly been reliant on using the mouse as a model organism to study early development. Our new single-cell method gives us an unprecedented ability to study epigenetic processes in human early embryonic development, which has been restricted by the very limited amount of tissue available for analysis," Dr. Gavin Kelsey of the Babraham Institute said in a press release.

The research, published in Nature Methods, offers a new single-cell technique capable of analyzing DNA methylation - one of the key epigenetic marks - across the whole genome. The method uses the chemical bisulfite to treat DNA and read the location of methylation marks and the genes being affected.

Current methods observe epigenetic marks in multiple, pooled cells, but this new technique is the first to look at individual cells and how epigenetic changes during early development drive cell fate.

According to Kelsey: "Future clinical applications could include the analysis of individual cancer cells to provide clinicians with the information to tailor treatments, and improvements in fertility treatment by understanding the potential for epigenetic errors in assisted reproduction technologies."

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