It was a bit like watching 15-Minute Hamlet, a time-warped version of Shakespeare’s work that includes all of the well-known scenes without the detailed action.
Facing a standing-room-only crowd of students and faculty at a Jan. 15 meeting at the Duke Institute for Genome Sciences & Policy, genetics researcher Randy Jirtle (photo) covered in short order the background, current events and possible directions of epigenetics -- billed for this occasion as “The New Genetics of Biology.”
Shorn of most details, epigenetics is the study of heritable changes in gene function that occur without a change in the DNA sequence within cells. The field has emerged only in recent years, and Jirtle has proved a marquee player. (For his efforts, he was nominated by a top federal health official to be Time magazine’s 2007 Person of the Year, but lost the part to Vladimir Putin of Russia.)
In particular, Jirtle studies genetic “imprinting,” a form of gene regulation that doesn’t follow the usual genetic rules. Imprinting is proving to be important in determining whether infants exposed to certain environmental or nutritional agents in the womb or during the early postnatal period go on to become susceptible to a number of adult-onset diseases, including cancer, diabetes and asthma. His group’s website offers more.
Among their latest achievements, Jirtle and his colleagues identified 156 imprinted genes in humans -- the largest such list to date. Now the challenge is to determine what roles, if any, the genes play in disease.
Heady stuff -- and often above my head. But I got cut some slack: “This field is not for the faint of heart,” Jirtle told his audience. “It’s not easy to work in, but it’s incredibly exciting and important.”
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