Much as our genetic sequence is passed from parent to child, epigenetic "marks" that sit on our genes are also inherited. These "marks," usually small methyl groups, are attached to genes' backbones and convey information, such as identifying which parent the gene came from. The marks also normally turn genes on or off. But just as changes in genes' sequences can cause diseases such as cancer, gain or loss of epigenetic marks can, too, by improperly turning genes on or off.
"Epigenetics may be as important in certain conditions, or in contributing to the risk of developing certain conditions, as the genetic sequence is in other cases," says Andrew Feinberg, M.D., King Fahd Professor of Medicine and principal investigator of the epigenetics grant. "Epigenetics doesn't underlie all human disease, but we definitely need to develop the technology to figure out when and where epigenetic changes do influence health and disease."
Feinberg, who pioneered the study of epigenetics in cancer, will lead the new Center for the Epigenetics of Common Human Disease at Johns Hopkins, which is funded by the National Human Genome Research Institute and the National Institute of Mental Health. Through the center's grant, Feinberg and his colleagues will first develop tools to create comprehensive information about epigenetics and then apply that information to the study of autism and bipolar disorder. The epigenetic information and technologies will also be available to researchers investigating other conditions.