April 2, 2009

Scientists define epigenetic traits

U.S. scientists say they have proposed a definition of epigenetics -- a new research field focusing on heritable genetic alterations not caused by DNA.

Ali Shilatifard of the Stowers Institute for Medical Research met with colleagues in December at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York to develop a consensus definition of epigenetic traits for consideration by the broader research community.

Shilatifard said the definition is intended to address confusion within the scientific community about the distinction between the mechanisms of epigenetic memory during early development versus those of dynamic chromatin regulation involved in differential expression of genes throughout adult life.

The proposed definition reads: An epigenetic trait is a stably inherited phenotype resulting from changes in a chromosome without alterations in the DNA sequence.

The field of epigenetics has "¦ grown swiftly over the past several years, extending well beyond an initial discovery phase and identification of fundamental non-genetic and chromatin-based regulatory mechanisms, said Shilatifard. This collective effort "¦ is an attempt to add focus and clarity to this exciting and growing area of research.

The project is reported in the journal Genes and Development.