The Epigenome: the latest biomedical breakthrough
February 2001, the prestigious specialized journals Nature and Science echoed that which could be classified as one of the great biomedical projects of our era: the mapping of the human genome. February 2015, although with much less commotion outside the biological and medical setting, Nature again published another great milestone in the field: deciphering the epigenome.
Nearly 10 years of work and a budget of $240 million, complied in 24 studies detailing the epigenome of 111 different types of cells and tissue (joining the 16 made known in 2012), are only a few of the figures of this monumental project. But, what is the epigenome and why is this finding so important?
According to Nature, Epigenomics is the study of the key functional elements regulating the expression of a gene in a cell. “Guiding how genes express themselves, the epigenome allows cells carrying the same DNA to differentiate themselves from among the 200 types found in the human body”, explained Joseph F. Costello, director of one of the four NIH Roadmap Epigenome Mapping Centers in which this project has been carried out. Or, in other words, that which makes a brain cell different, for example, from a muscle cell, though they both have the same DNA.
The epigenome offers information regarding patterns in which structures such as methyl groups mark the DNA and the histones, as well as the interactions between the different sections of the chromatin. In other words, all those processes regulating the expression of genes without changing the DNA sequence.
And as for its applications: “With this increased understanding of the epigenome in its entirety, data now at the reach of the entire scientific community, the NIH Common Fund is striving to catalyze its future studies in helping to understand the role played by the epigenome in human illnesses; all in the hope that future studies will be able to identify early indicators of an illness and direct the patient to the therapeutic field”, ensured James Anderson, Director of Coordination, Planning and Strategies of the NIH Common Fund.