, Volume 64, Issue 12, pp 1531-1538
Date: 27 Apr 2007

Epigenetic mechanisms in the context of complex diseases

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Complex diseases arise from a combination of heritable and environmental factors. The contribution made by environmental factors may be mediated through epigenetics. Epigenetics is the study of changes in gene expression that occur without a change in DNA sequence and are meiotically or mitotically heritable. Such changes in gene expression are achieved through the methylation of DNA, the post-translational modifications of histone proteins, and RNA-based silencing. Epigenetics has been implicated in complex diseases such as cancer, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, autism and systemic lupus erythematosus. The prevalence and severity of these diseases may be influenced by factors that affect the epigenotype, such as ageing, folate status, in vitro fertilization and our ancestors’ lifestyles. Although our understanding of the role played by epigenetics in complex diseases remains in its infancy, it has already led to the development of novel diagnostic methods and treatments, which augurs well for its future health benefits.

Received 6 December 2006; received after revision 29 January 2007; accepted 15 March 2007