Epigenetics: The Final Frontier

Researchers have discovered three major ways organisms alter their DNA’s inherited messages: small RNAs can modify the expression of specific genes, enzymes can methylate DNA to modulate transcription, and histone modification can induce or repress target sequences.

Epigenetics is hot. In recent years, researchers in fields as diverse as cell biology, development, and even microbial pathogenesis have become very interested in heritable traits that don’t rely on DNA. The idea itself is not new—cancer biologists have known for decades that mechanisms such as DNA methylation and chromatin modification can transmit changes to subsequent generations of cells without changing DNA sequences—but studying these phenomena has recently been increasing in popularity, aided by new technological innovations.

Small RNAs spawned an entire industry of user-friendly assays almost immediately after their discovery, but understanding DNA methylation or protein-DNA interactions requires more specialized techniques that can be tricky for the uninitiated.

Scientific police examining a bullet cap in ballistic Laboratory, conceptual image

As a small sampling of tool makers reveals, companies are now trying to address these problems with a new generation of kits, reagents, and equipment to simplify epigenetic assays.