There’s more to inheritance and how a body develops than simply DNA. You get your genes from your parents – but how those genes are interpreted is far from straightforward.
blastocyst stage embryo stained for epigenetic marks (red and
green) and DNA (blue). Credit: Dr Fatima Santos, Dr Wendy Dean
& Prof Wolf Reik, The Babraham Institute.
Genes provide the basic instructions for what we look like, our
personalities, and what diseases we may develop. However, genes
alone cannot explain how our body and our organs develop, nor all
aspects of inheritance or why diseases arise.
Epigenetics is the study of how genes 'behave' and are
influenced by the environment, the 'blueprint' for our development.
'Epigenetic marks' instruct genes when and where to switch 'on' and
'off' as we develop in the womb and later into adulthood.
Epigenetics is revolutionising our understanding of gene
regulation, stem cells, and disease. It makes us think about how
our lifestyle may affect the lives of our descendants - as well as
how our ancestors' behaviour and environment has determined who we
are. It enables us to develop new drugs to combat cancer and think
in new ways about stem cells or turning one tissue into
How it works
The research presented in this exhibit brings a new
understanding of how epigenetic marks arise and are removed from
genes. This process happens in a programmed way during early life
and ageing, but can also be influenced by environmental factors.
For people, this can affect the likelihood of developing conditions
like diabetes, obesity and cancer. For plants, this can determine
whether they flower in spring following a cold winter.
Scientists are studying how epigenetic marks are reset in
mammalian germ cells allowing newly formed embryos to start anew.
This enables germ cells to produce any tissue of the new body, a
phenomenon known as totipotency, which is also important for stem
When cells differentiate in the developing body to form our
organs, epigenetic marks ensure that brain cells work differently
from liver cells, for example. Such epigenetic marks in adult cells
need to be reprogrammed to derive stem cells for use in
The scientists behind this exhibit are also studying the
regulation of epigenetic marks in insects where social behaviour
(for example for queens or workers) may be epigenetically
The advent of powerful high throughput sequencing technologies,
which unravel epigenomes in a matter of hours, has made it possible
to explore a cell's epigenetic landscape and gain deeper insight
into this fascinating level of gene regulation. This knowledge has
the potential to revolutionise healthcare, through personalised
reprogramming of epigenetic errors and innovative regenerative
Lead image: Mouse growing oocyte with
surrounding ovary cells stained for DNA (blue), a chromatin protein
(green) and a modifier protein concentrated in the cytoplasm (red).
Credit: Dr Fatima Santos, Dr Wendy Dean & Prof Wolf Reik, The