For more than a century, scientists have understood the basics of inheritance: if good genes help parents survive and reproduce, the parents pass those genes along to their offspring. And yet, recent research has shown that reality is much more complex: genes can be switched off, or silenced, in response to the environment or other factors, and sometimes these changes can be passed from one generation to the next. The phenomenon has been called epigenetic inheritance, but it is not well understood. Now, University of Maryland geneticist Dr. Antony Jose and two of his graduate students are the first to figure out a specific mechanism by which a parent can pass silenced genes to its offspring. Importantly, the team found that this silencing could persist for multiple generations—more than 25, in the case of this study. The research, which was published online on February 2, 2015 in PNAS, could transform our understanding of animal evolution. Further, it might one day help in the design of treatments for a broad range of genetic diseases. The title of the PNAS article is, "“Double-Stranded RNA Made in C. elegans Neurons Can Enter the Germline and Cause Transgenerational Gene Silencing.” “For a long time, biologists have wanted to know how information from the environment sometimes gets transmitted to the next generation,” said Dr. Jose, an Assistant Professor in the University of Maryland Department of Cell Biology and Molecular Genetics. “This is the first mechanistic demonstration of how this could happen. It’s a level of organization that we didn’t know existed in animals before.” Dr. Jose and graduate students Sindhuja Devanapally and Snusha Ravikumar worked with the roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans, a species commonly used in lab experiments.
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