Epigenetics is the study of cellular and physiological phenotypic trait variations that result from external or environmental factors that switch genes on and off and affect how cells express genes. Epigenetic research seeks to describe dynamic alterations in the transcriptional potential of a cell.
Mechanisms that produce such changes are DNA methylation and histone modification, each of which alters how genes are expressed without altering the underlying DNA sequence. Gene expression can be controlled through the action of repressor proteins that attach to silencer regions of the DNA. These epigenetic changes may last through cell divisions for the duration of the cell's life, and may also last for multiple generations even though they do not involve changes in the underlying DNA sequence of the organism; instead, non-genetic factors cause the organism's genes to behave differently.
Epigenetics is important for cellular differentiation, embryology, the regulation of gene expression, aging, cancer, and other diseases.
Histone acetylation and deacetylation are the processes by which the lysine residues within the N-terminal tail protruding from the histone core of the nucleosome are acetylated and deacetylated as part of gene regulation. Histone acetylation and deacetylation are essential parts of gene regulation. These reactions are typically catalysed by enzymes with histone acetyltransferase (HAT) or histone deacetylase (HDAC) activity.
Acetylated histones represent a type of epigenetic marker within chromatin. Acetylation removes the positive charge on the histones, thereby decreasing the interaction of the N termini of histones with the negatively charged phosphate groups of DNA. As a consequence, the condensed chromatin is transformed into a more relaxed structure that is associated with greater levels of gene transcription. This relaxation can be reversed by HDAC activity. Relaxed, transcriptionally active DNA is referred to as euchromatin. More condensed (tightly packed) DNA is referred to as heterochromatin.
Histone methylation is a process by which methyl groups are transferred to amino acids of histone proteins that make up nucleosomes, which the DNA double helix wraps around to form chromosomes. Methylation of histones can either increase or decrease transcription of genes, depending on which amino acids in the histones are methylated, and how many methyl groups are attached. Methylation events that weaken chemical attractions between histone tails and DNA increase transcription, because they enable the DNA to uncoil from nucleosomes so that transcription factor proteins and RNA polymerase can access the DNA. This process is critical for the regulation of gene expression that allows different cells to express different genes.
DNA methylation is a process by which methyl groups are added to DNA. Methylation modifies the function of the DNA. When located in a gene promoter, DNA methylation typically acts to repress gene transcription. DNA methylation is essential for normal development and is associated with a number of key processes including genomic imprinting, X-chromosome inactivation, repression of repetitive elements, aging and carcinogenesis.
A bromodomain is an approximately 110 amino acid protein domain that recognizes acetylated lysine residues, such as those on the N-terminal tails of histones. Bromodomains, as the “readers” of lysine acetylation, are responsible in transducing the signal carried by acetylated lysine residues and translating it into various normal or abnormal phenotypes. Their affinity is higher for regions where multiple acetylation sites exist in proximity. This recognition is often a prerequisite for protein-histone association and chromatin remodeling. The domain itself adopts an all-α protein fold, a bundle of four alpha helices each separated by loop regions of variable lengths that form a hydrophobic pocket that recognizes the acetyl lysine.