Article Examines Epigenetics in Developing Mammalian Embryo; H3K9me3 Histone Marker, Normally Repressive of Gene Expression, Is Non-Repressive in Embryo; Possible New Clue to Cell Reprogramming

Maria-Elena Torres-Padilla (photo), PhD, Director of the Institute of Epigenetics and Stem Cells at Helmholtz Zentrum München, and her colleague Adam Burton, PhD, are doing pioneering work in the field of epigenetics. Together with colleagues, Dr. Torres-Padilla and Dr. Burton published an article on epigenetics in the embryo online on June 29, 2020 in Nature Cell Biology. The article is titled “Heterochromatin Establishment During Early Mammalian Development Is Regulated by Pericentromeric RNA and Characterized By Non-Repressive H3k9me3.” Below, Dr. Torres-Padilla and Dr. Burton responded to some questions on their work. The first question was “Why would we want to reprogram cells?” Dr. Padilla-Lopez answered by saying, “Can you imagine being able to artificially generate cells that can develop into any cell type? That would be really fantastic! We call this ability 'totipotency' and it is the highest level of cellular plasticity. When you think about using healthy cells to replace sick cells, for example in regeneration and replacement therapies, you need to think about how to generate those 'new' healthy cells. For that, you often need to 'reprogram' other cells, that means, to be able to change one cell into the cell type of interest. In nature, cellular reprogramming happens in the early embryo at fertilization. It is a purely epigenetic process since the DNA content of the embryo's cells does not change, only the genes they express. Epigenetics mediates changes in gene expression meaning the way our genes are 'read' from our genetic makeup, which is largely imposed by chromatin.
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