How does epigenetic gene regulation contribute to evolution, across species and in cancer?
Associate Prof Peter Sarkies
Epigenetics and Evolution
Epigenetics allows different types of cells in the body to turn different sets of genes on or off without changing the underlying DNA sequence. As a result, epigenetics is fundamental for development. However, it is becoming clear that some epigenetic information can be passed on between generations: transgenerational epigenetic inheritance. We are interested in the possibility that transgenerational inheritance of epigenetic changes, which we call “epimutations” could lead to differences between individuals and therefore drive evolutionary changes. To study this, we are evolving populations of the nematode worm C. elegans in the laboratory and investigating epigenetic changes that arise over hundreds of generations.
We are also fascinated by the observation that epigenetic pathways show enormous diversity across eukaryotes. Interestingly this diversity is recapitulated in human cancer, where many epigenetic pathways are mutated or altered. We are using evolutionary analyses to discover what drives the rapid evolution of epigenetic pathways across species, thereby gaining insight into why epigenetic mechanisms might be so frequently altered in cancer.