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2 July, 2013

By Karl Gruber
Edited by Alysia L. vandenBerg
Photo introduction: h.koppdelaney on FlickrCC Licensed by

Can we live longer by just tweaking bits and pieces of our DNA, without changing our DNA code? Eric Greer, a Postdoctoral Fellow in Yang Shi's laboratory at Harvard Medical School, in Boston, Massachusetts, USA, is counting on some very small worms, called C. elegans, to answer this very question. These tiny worms, just about 1mm long, have helped uncover some very big discoveries in the world of biological research; and today they are helping Eric address questions about longevity. Recently, Eric had been working with worms that have a particular genetic mutation, or a mistake in their DNA, that made them live longer, when he discovered something very odd. Even three generations down the road, the great great grandchildren of these long-lived worms still lived longer, even though they no longer carried the mutation! (Reference) How is it possible to pass on a characteristic, such as longevity, through generations without inheriting the corresponding DNA mutation (1)? The short answer is: epigenetics, which literally means "above or beyond genetics". If you think of your DNA sequences as words you read from a book, then the DNA letters remain unchanged, but the words can be underlined, boldfaced, or highlighted, in processes that we call epigenetic modifications.

Comments:

1. Greer, Eric L., et al. "Transgenerational epigenetic inheritance of longevity in Caenorhabditis elegans." Nature 479.7373 (2011): 365-371.
http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v479/n7373/full/nature10572.html

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