Advancing Epigenetics Towards Systems Biology

Scientists demonstrate a role for epigenetics in the inheritance of complex traits

The teams of Vincent Colot at the Institut de Biologie de l'Ecole Normale Supérieure (IBENS) in Paris (France) and Frank Johannes at the Groningen Bioinformatics Centre [GBiC] (University of Groningen, Netherlands), together with colleagues at Genoscope in Evry (France) have demonstrated that the heritability of complex traits can be determined by epigenetic variants rather than changes in DNA sequence. Using a population of "epigenetic recombinant inbred lines" (epiRILs) in the model plant Arabidopsis, they identified regions of the genome that can adopt distinct epigenetic states and are responsible for heritable differences in flowering time and root growth. Many of these regions show similar epigenetic variation amongst natural Arabidopsis populations. These results, published online on February 6, 2014 in Science, have profound implications for how we define and interpret the heritable basis of complex traits. They challenge the central dogma that genetic differences between individuals are only based on differences in their genomes.