What is Epigenetics?
An organism is more than the sum of its genes. An epigenetic layer of information lies above (“epi-“) the DNA sequence (“-genetic”) and shapes the output of one single genome into cells of different types and, at times, individuals with different traits. Epigenetic information is written and read by molecular machines that pack and unpack chromosomes within the nucleus, thereby marking genes as “repressed” or “active” according to internal developmental programs and external environmental cues.
The importance of epigenetic pathways can hardly be overestimated, as their proper functioning endows stem cells with the ability to regenerate tissues and organs and their disruption transforms well-behaved differentiated cells into renegade cancer cells. Recent advances in the field of molecular and cellular epigenetics have allowed us to reprogram virtually any type of adult human cell into a pluripotent stem cell and have opened new avenues to treat cancer. Epigenetic processes are also widely believed to regulate complex, organism-level phenomena such as lifespan regulation, brain function, and behavior.
How do we study Epigenetics?
The Penn Epigenetics Institute brings together scientists who have a shared interest in epigenetic phenomena but come from diverse backgrounds, utilize different methodologies, and study a variety of model systems, including yeast, flowering plants, fruit flies, ants, mice, and human cells. Genetic and molecular tools are available in most of these models and allow us to ask questions at the mechanistic and phenotypic levels. We make extensive use of genome- and proteome-wide approaches, integrated with computational biology to understand how epigenetic processes shape the output of the entire genome.