Minute to Understanding: What is epigenetics?


What is epigenetics?

Learn how epigenetic changes can affect an individual — without physically changing their DNA sequence.

Genetics is your genes. And each gene has a unique sequence that makes a protein that does something in your body.

A genetic mutation is a hardcopy change in one or more parts of that sequence.

This could just make you, you. Or it could contribute to a genetic disease.

An epigenetic change also changes a gene’s DNA — but not at the sequence level.

Instead, special marks are added or removed to change how a protein works in the body. These could also contribute to disease. How these marks appear is a hot research topic. Some causes may be diet, stressors or environmental pollutants.

What’s important about epigenetics is that it offers a different approach to treating disease. Whereas a hardcopy genetic mutation is difficult to fix, finding ways to remove a bad epigenetic mark, or add a good one, could be an easier solution.

What is epigenetics?
How can two mice with the same DNA sequence have different coat colors? Epigenetics! In this particular yellow mouse strain, when a mother is given a diet enriched in folic acid (a good source for epigenetic ‘methylation’ of DNA), a gene controlling coat color is methylated resulting in more brown pups being born than yellow. This is an example of how diet can cause epigenetic changes to affect an individual — without physically changing their DNA sequence. Illustration by Zoë Reifsnyder.

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