Dr Fatima Santos
Senior Postdoc Scientist, University of Cambridge

Presented by The Babraham Institute, BBSRC, The John Innes Centre, CellCentric and Pfizer

Dr Peter Rugg Gunn
Group Leader, Babraham Institute

Professor Wolf Reik FRS
Head of the Epigenetics Programme, Babraham Institute

Further reading

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.

Epigenetics -2-320Mouse 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 another.

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 cells.

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 patients.

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 determined.

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 medicine strategies.


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 Babraham Institute.