In the currently hot research area known as ‘epigenetics’, researchers are discovering that offspring inherit much more from their parents than just their genes. Individuals also inherit detailed instructions on how to use the genetic sequence coded in their DNA via small chemical, or epigenetic, markers that decorate DNA strands.
Figure 1: The Sp1 peptide probe (left) binds a DNA strand (right) and reveals the presence of an epigenetic marker that is a methyl group (purple). Copyright : 2011 Akimitsu Okamoto
The markers can activate some genes and switch off others. Epigeneticists are racing to decode the roles of different markers; but, first, they must develop the ability to read them. A new chemical probe, developed by a research team led by Akimitsu Okamoto at the RIKEN Advanced Science Institute, Wako, is showing promise as an analytical tool to assist this quest1.
The team’s probe can differentiate between two epigenetic markers—methyl and hydroxymethyl markers—that differ by the presence of a single oxygen atom. Methyl groups, one of the first epigenetic markers discovered, are known to inactivate gene expression; ‘demethylation’, or removal of a methyl group from the DNA, allows gene expression to restart.
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