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Understanding type 2 diabetes: from genetics to epigenetics


The known genetic variability (common DNA polymorphisms) does not account either for the current epidemics of type 2 diabetes or for the family transmission of this disorder. However, clinical, epidemiological and, more recently, experimental evidence indicates that environmental factors have an extraordinary impact on the natural history of type 2 diabetes. Some of these environmental hits are often shared in family groups and proved to be capable to induce epigenetic changes which alter the function of genes affecting major diabetes traits. Thus, epigenetic mechanisms may explain the environmental origin as well as the familial aggregation of type 2 diabetes much easier than common polymorphisms. In the murine model, exposure of parents to environmental hits known to cause epigenetic changes reprograms insulin sensitivity as well as beta-cell function in the progeny, indicating that certain epigenetic changes can be transgenerationally transmitted. Studies from different laboratories revealed that, in humans, lifestyle intervention modulates the epigenome and reverts environmentally induced epigenetic modifications at specific target genes. Finally, specific human epigenotypes have been identified which predict adiposity and type 2 diabetes with much greater power than any polymorphism so far identified. These epigenotypes can be recognized in easily accessible white cells from peripheral blood, indicating that, in the future, epigenetic profiling may enable effective type 2 diabetes prediction. This review discusses recent evidence from the literature supporting the immediate need for further investigation to uncover the power of epigenetics in the prediction, prevention and treatment of type 2 diabetes.

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This work has been supported, in part, by the European Foundation for the Study of Diabetes (EFSD), the Associazione Italiana per la Ricerca sul Cancro (AIRC) and by the Ministero dell’Università e della Ricerca Scientifica (Grants PRIN and FIRB-MERIT, and PON 01_02460). This work was also supported by the P.O.R. Campania FSE 2007-2013, Project CREMe.

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The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Statement of human rights

This article does not contain any studies with human participants performed by any of the authors.

Statement on the welfare of animals

All animal procedures in studies conducted by the authors and cited in this review were in accordance with the Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals published by the National Institutes of Health (publication no. 85-23, revised 1996), and experiments were approved by the ethics committee of the Federico II University.

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Correspondence to Francesco Béguinot.

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Raciti, G.A., Longo, M., Parrillo, L. et al. Understanding type 2 diabetes: from genetics to epigenetics. Acta Diabetol 52, 821–827 (2015).

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  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Epigenetics
  • Methylation
  • Histone modifications
  • MicroRNA
  • Personalized medicine