Epigenomics and Epigenetics Research


Overview

Epigenetics focuses on processes that regulate how and when certain genes are turned on and turned off, while epigenomics pertains to analysis of epigenetic changes across many genes in a cell or entire organism.

Epigenetic processes control normal growth and development and this process is deregulated in diseases such as cancer. Diet and exposure to environmental chemicals throughout all stages of human development among other factors can cause epigenetic changes that may turn on or turn off certain genes. Changes in genes that would normally protect against a disease, as a result, could make people more susceptible to developing that disease later in life. Researchers also believe some epigenetic changes can be passed on from generation to generation.

The epigenome can mark DNA in two ways, both of which play a role in turning genes off or on. The first occurs when certain chemical tags called methyl groups attach to the backbone of a DNA molecule. The second occurs when a variety of chemical tags attach to the tails of histones, which are spool-like proteins that package DNA neatly into chromosomes. This action affects how tightly DNA is wound around the histones.

Epigenetic mechanisms are affected by several factors and processes including development in utero and in childhood, environmental chemicals, drugs and pharmaceuticals, aging, and diet.

Social epigenomics is an emerging area of research in cancer development. Individuals living in disadvantaged neighborhoods are often exposed to chemical and non-chemical stressors, both physical (e.g., noise pollution, lack of green space) and social (e.g., food desert, violence or threat of violence, discrimination, residential segregation and psychosocial stress). Health disparities may arise not only because of higher levels of exposure to environmental hazards among certain population groups, but also as a result of the synergistic effect of exposure to multiple environmental hazards and social stressors. Operating through epigenomic changes, adverse social and environmental experiences early in life may predispose an individual to dysfunctional physiological response and to future stressors in adulthood.

Figure: Epigenetic mechanisms are affected by several factors and processes including development in utero and in childhood, environmental chemicals, drugs and pharmaceuticals, aging, and diet. DNA methylation is what occurs when methyl groups, an epigenetic factor found in some dietary sources, can tag DNA and activate or repress genes. Histones are proteins around which DNA can wind for compaction and gene regulation. Histone modification occurs when the binding of epigenetic factors to histone tails; alters the extent to which DNA is wrapped around histones and the availability of genes in the DNA to be activated. All of these factors and processes can have an effect on people's health and influence their health possibly resulting in cancer, autoimmune disease, mental disorders, or diabetes among other illnesses. Image provided courtesy of NIH Common Fund.

Illustration of Epigenetic Mechanisms
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Figure: What is Social Epigenomics? Race and ethnicity determine social environment, and social experiences affect gene function at various stages of life, thereby influencing health trajectory and modifying disease risk. Through epigenomic profiling before the onset of diseases, it may be possible to tailor interventions to prevent chronic conditions or diseases later in life.

What is Social Epigenomics?
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Funding Opportunities

NCI-sponsored Funding Opportunity Announcements (FOAs) related to epigenomics and epigenetics research include:

  • Social Epigenomics Research Focused on Minority Health and Health Disparities – expires November 16, 2018, unless reissued

EGRP also encourages investigator-initiated grant applications on epigenomics and epigenetics topics. It also joins with other NCI Divisions, and other components of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to fund grant applications submitted in response to FOAs.

View the full list of EGRP FOAs.

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Public Resources

  • EpigenomicsExternal Web Site Policy
    This webpage from the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) explains what the epigenome is and what it does, discusses what the epigenome consists of and whether the epigenome is inherited. It also reviews imprinting, what can cause the epigenome to change, and how these changes contribute to cancer risk.
  • Cancer Topics Explained: Epigenetics AnimationExternal Web Site Policy
    View a video animation produced by the National Cancer Institute describing how mice are used to study changes in DNA that could also occur in humans and eventually lead to cancer.
  • The Epigenome PodcastExternal Web Site Policy
    This podcast, produced by the National Institutes of Environmental Health Sciences' Partnerships for Environmental Public Health Program, features Dr. Randy Jirtle on and recent insights about how environmental exposures and the epigenome may affect an individual's health.

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Research Resources

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Contacts

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