Epigenetic inheritance, prions and evolution
The field of epigenetics has grown explosively in the past two decades or so. As currently defined, epigenetics deals with heritable, metastable and usually reversible changes that do not involve alterations in DNA sequence, but alter the way that information encoded inDNAis utilized.The bulk of current research in epigenetics concerns itself with mitotically inherited epigenetic processes underlying development or responses to environmental cues (as well as the role of mis-regulation or dys-regulation of such processes in disease and ageing), i.e., epigenetic changes occurring within individuals. However, a steadily growing body of evidence indicates that epigenetic changes may also sometimes be transmitted from parents to progeny, meiotically in sexually reproducingorganisms or mitotically in asexually reproducing ones. Such transgenerational epigenetic inheritance (TEI) raises obvious questions about a possible evolutionary role for epigenetic ‘Lamarckian’ mechanisms in evolution, particularly when epigenetic modifications are induced by environmental cues. In this review I attempt a brief overview of the periodically reviewed and debated ‘classical’ TEI phenomena and their possible implications for evolution. The review then focusses on a less-discussed, unique kind of protein-onlyepigenetic inheritance mediated by prions. Much remains to be learnt about the mechanisms, persistence and effects of TEI. The jury is still out on their evolutionary significance and how these phenomena should be incorporated into evolutionary theory, but the growing weight of evidence indicates that likely evolutionary roles for these processes need to be seriously explored.
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