Epigenetics is the study of heritable changes in gene expression (active versus inactive genes) that do not involve changes to the underlying DNA sequence — a change in phenotype without a change in genotype — which in turn affects how cells read the genes. Epigenetic change is a regular and natural occurrence but can also be influenced by several factors including age, the environment/lifestyle, and disease state. Epigenetic modifications can manifest as commonly as the manner in which cells terminally differentiate to end up as skin cells, liver cells, brain cells, etc. Or, epigenetic change can have more damaging effects that can result in diseases like cancer. At least three systems including DNA methylation, histone modification and non-coding RNA (ncRNA)-associated gene silencing are currently considered to initiate and sustain epigenetic change. New and ongoing research is continuously uncovering the role of epigenetics in a variety of human disorders and fatal diseases.
How does epigenetics work?
So epigenetics is about how genes are expressed and used, rather than the DNA sequence of the genes themselves, but how does this work? Many researchers have been studying epigenetics over the past few decades, and it is currently an area of intense research activity. We know that a part of how epigenetics works is by adding and removing small chemical tags to DNA. You can think of these tags as post-it notes that highlight particular genes with information about whether they should be switched on or off. In fact the chemical tag in question is called a methyl group and it is used to modify one of the four bases or “chemical letters”, A, C, T and G, that makes up the genetic code of our DNA. The letter that is tagged is C or cytosine and when it is modified, or methylated it is called 5-methyl cytosine. Methyl groups are added to DNA by enzymes called DNA methyl transferases (DNMTs).
The epigenetics operating in the across the globe includes Merck KGaA, Thermo Fisher Scientific, Inc., Abcam plc, Agilent Technologies, Active Motif, QIAGEN, Bio-Rad Laboratories, Inc., PerkinElmer Inc., New England Biolabs (NEB), and Illumina, Inc. among others.
For instance, in February, 2018 QIAGEN launches epigenetic breast cancer test in Europe. In November 2015 Abcam acquires AxioMx to access new growth opportunities and extend antibody leadership. Thus expanding its business in global epigenetics market.
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