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Is the epigenetics another dimension in evolution?

Read time: 3 mins

Sir David Charles Baulcombe is currently Royal Society Research Professor and Regius Professor of Botany at the University of Cambridge. Baulcombe has helped unravel the complexities and origins of the different classes of small RNA molecule, and showed how they could determine patterns of epigenetic DNA methylation. Much of what he has discovered is applicable to animals, indicating these are ancient processes that evolved at the base of the evolutionary tree that gave rise to multicellular plants and animals. David Charles Baulcombe was awarded the Balzan Prize in 2012 for Epigenetics "For his fundamental contribution to the understanding of epigenetics and its role in cell and tissue development under normal and stressful conditions". The British scientist will give a Lecture, during the Evolution Day 2013, titled "Epigenetics - another dimension in evolution?"

Do you often use the expression: "It’s not all my DNA", what does that mean?
Information in the genome is not only in the sequence ACGT of the DNA molecule but also in molecular “decorations”  to the DNA that affect the expression of genes. These decorations are copied when the genome is copied in cell division. We now understand that RNA is not only the cellular messenger that transmits coding sequencing information from the nucleus into the rest of the cell – it is also a regulator of information in the genome. It helps switch genes off or to ensure that they are turned on to just the right amount.

You are considered between the fathers of the epigenetics, can explain to us what is this process?
It is a whole reactions that not altering the structure of the DNA, epigenetics refers to heritable effects the genome that are separate from the effects of the sequence ACGT in the DNA.

How does epigenetics shape life? It provides a molecular memory of our past experience. That’s why the effects of the environment in which we live can get on to future generations. 

The DNA is not so important as we have always believed?
DNA is central – epigenetics is an important side show to the DNA.

After so many years of discoveries, which is the definition of gene?
Same as it always was – a unit of information in the genome that is inherited from one generation to the next. Traditionally we thought that genes encoded proteins – but we now know that they also specify regulatory RNA.

How can its discoveries bring benefits in the biomedical field?
It may help understand certain types of disease including cancer.

Which are the environmental characteristics that influence our heritable characteristics? Stress is particularly important – probably all forms of stress including physical and psychological. But also hunger, smoking in adolescence can be decisive factors.

Do you define the epigenetics as "inheritance soft" can you explain us the why of this affirmation?
Hard inheritance is determine by the sequence of ACGT in DNA. It is changed only infrequently in response to the environment. Epigenetics determines soft inheritance because it can be unstable of affected by the environment, is a slow but constant mechanism.

The RNA silencing process and epigenetics have had a role in the evolution?
They are an additional mechanism  by which new heritable variation is generated.

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