Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

All creatures great and small: How the environment controls traits

11.03.2015

Ground breaking epigenetics research has implications for everything from cancer to farming

Until now scientists have believed that the variations in traits such as our height, skin colour, tendency to gain weight or not, intelligence, tendency to develop certain diseases, etc., all of them traits that exist along a continuum, were a result of both genetic and environmental factors. But they didn't know how exactly these things worked together. By studying ants, McGill researchers have identified a key mechanism by which environmental (or epigenetic) factors influence the expression of all of these traits, (along with many more).


McGill researchers have discovered that environmental factors play a crucial role in determining complex traits like size

Credit: Mélanie Couture and Dominic Ouellette

They believe that, by identifying a key gene for each trait and how it is affected epigenetically (by the environment), it is potentially possible to influence the degree of its expression - and so create variation in how specific traits are expressed. It's a bit like an artist adding more or less white paint to black to create a palette of shades of gray. In effect, it is the discovery of the mechanism through which the environment interacts with specific genes, revealing environmental factors as an equal partner in determining complex traits.

A McGill team led by Profs. Moshe Szyf and Ehab Abouheif, from the McGill's Departments of Pharmacology and Therapeutics, and Biology respectively, has clearly identified a mechanism by which epigenetic factors - how the environment affects the expression of a single gene - have an overarching effect in creating quantitative variation in these kinds of complex traits.

The researchers arrived at this conclusion by conducting epigenetic experiments on ants from the species Camponotus floridanus (better known as the Florida carpenter ant). Because there is little genetic influence in determining size variation of workers in a colony (they are on average 75 per cent related) and because their genome has already been sequenced it was possible for the researchers to focus on the effects of epigenetic factors in creating variations in size.

The enviro-genetics of a superhero: Ant Man

By increasing the degree of DNA methylation (a biochemical process that controls the expression of certain genes - a bit like a dimmer can turn a light up or down) of a gene involved in controlling growth called Egfr, they were able to create a spectrum of worker ant sizes despite the lack of genetic difference between one ant and the next. Essentially, the researchers found that the more methylated the gene, the larger the size of the ants.

"Basically, what we found was a kind of cascading effect. By modifying the methylation of one particular gene, that affects others, in this case the Egfr gene, we could affect all the other genes involved in cellular growth," says Sebastian Alvarado, the McGill PhD who is the co-first author on the study that was published today in Nature Communications. "We were working with ants, but it was a bit like discovering that we could create shorter or taller human beings."

Finding the right gene to work on

"In the case of growth in ants, it was the Egfr gene which was determinant," says Rajendhran Rajakumar, co-first author of the paper. "But for other complex traits, whether they are involved in the growth of cancer cells in humans or fat cells in chickens, what we now know is that once we have discovered, in each case, the key genetic position that is affected by epigenetic factors we can then influence how much or how little of the gene is expressed with potentially very far-reaching results."

"It's a discovery that completely changes our understanding of how human variation comes to be," says Abouheif. "So many human traits, whether they are intelligence, height, or vulnerability to diseases such as cancer, exist along a continuum. If, as we believe, this epigenetic mechanism applies to a key gene in each area, the change is so enormous that it's hard to even imagine right now how it will influence research in everything from health to cognitive development to farming."

###

This work is the result of collaboration between the Department of Pharmacology and Therapeutics (PhD student Sebastian Alvarado and Professor Moshe Szyf) and the Department of Biology (PhD student Rajendhran Rajakumar and Professor Ehab Abouheif) at McGill University.

To read the full article by Alvarado et al in Nature Communications: http://www.nature.com/ncomms/index.html

To contact the researchers directly:

Ehab Abouheif (for French and English interviews)

Moshe Szyf (English interviews only)

High profile researchers who can comment on the article:

Prof. Gene Robinson (generobi@illinois.edu) at the University of Illinois, Urbana Champagne

Prof. Ryszard Maleszka (ryszard.maleszka@anu.edu.au) at the Australian National University

Prof. Juergen Gadau (Juergen.Gadau@asu.edu) at Arizona State University

Prof. Michael Goodisman (michael.goodisman@biology.gatech.edu) at Georgia Tech University

Katherine Gombay | EurekAlert!

More articles from Life Sciences:

nachricht Bare bones: Making bones transparent
27.04.2017 | California Institute of Technology

nachricht Link Discovered between Immune System, Brain Structure and Memory
26.04.2017 | Universität Basel

All articles from Life Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Making lightweight construction suitable for series production

More and more automobile companies are focusing on body parts made of carbon fiber reinforced plastics (CFRP). However, manufacturing and repair costs must be further reduced in order to make CFRP more economical in use. Together with the Volkswagen AG and five other partners in the project HolQueSt 3D, the Laser Zentrum Hannover e.V. (LZH) has developed laser processes for the automatic trimming, drilling and repair of three-dimensional components.

Automated manufacturing processes are the basis for ultimately establishing the series production of CFRP components. In the project HolQueSt 3D, the LZH has...

Im Focus: Wonder material? Novel nanotube structure strengthens thin films for flexible electronics

Reflecting the structure of composites found in nature and the ancient world, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have synthesized thin carbon nanotube (CNT) textiles that exhibit both high electrical conductivity and a level of toughness that is about fifty times higher than copper films, currently used in electronics.

"The structural robustness of thin metal films has significant importance for the reliable operation of smart skin and flexible electronics including...

Im Focus: Deep inside Galaxy M87

The nearby, giant radio galaxy M87 hosts a supermassive black hole (BH) and is well-known for its bright jet dominating the spectrum over ten orders of magnitude in frequency. Due to its proximity, jet prominence, and the large black hole mass, M87 is the best laboratory for investigating the formation, acceleration, and collimation of relativistic jets. A research team led by Silke Britzen from the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn, Germany, has found strong indication for turbulent processes connecting the accretion disk and the jet of that galaxy providing insights into the longstanding problem of the origin of astrophysical jets.

Supermassive black holes form some of the most enigmatic phenomena in astrophysics. Their enormous energy output is supposed to be generated by the...

Im Focus: A Quantum Low Pass for Photons

Physicists in Garching observe novel quantum effect that limits the number of emitted photons.

The probability to find a certain number of photons inside a laser pulse usually corresponds to a classical distribution of independent events, the so-called...

Im Focus: Microprocessors based on a layer of just three atoms

Microprocessors based on atomically thin materials hold the promise of the evolution of traditional processors as well as new applications in the field of flexible electronics. Now, a TU Wien research team led by Thomas Müller has made a breakthrough in this field as part of an ongoing research project.

Two-dimensional materials, or 2D materials for short, are extremely versatile, although – or often more precisely because – they are made up of just one or a...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

Expert meeting “Health Business Connect” will connect international medical technology companies

20.04.2017 | Event News

Wenn der Computer das Gehirn austrickst

18.04.2017 | Event News

7th International Conference on Crystalline Silicon Photovoltaics in Freiburg on April 3-5, 2017

03.04.2017 | Event News

 
Latest News

Bare bones: Making bones transparent

27.04.2017 | Life Sciences

Study offers new theoretical approach to describing non-equilibrium phase transitions

27.04.2017 | Physics and Astronomy

From volcano's slope, NASA instrument looks sky high and to the future

27.04.2017 | Earth Sciences

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>