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Finely tuning epigenetics

Our genome characterises who we are and our body physiology but only up to a certain point. The ambient and the way we live also play a major role in our wellbeing. Image credit: Evangelia Tzika et al, Frontiers in Genetics

Significant progress has been made in bio-engineering with the capability offered by CRISP/CasX to modify the genome. However, the genome has an impact on who we are (and on some 7,000 genetic disorders) only as far as genes are activated. The long DNA sequence contains some (estimated) 20,000 to 25,000 genes that carry the instructions to build specific proteins. These genes are usually dormant and get activated when need arises.

Hence, bio engineers have started to look into gene activation. If a gene has gone wrong rather than fixing it by changing (or deleting) it why not look into the possibility to make sure that it never gets activated? Similarly, if a gene is not activated and therefore it does not lead to the production of a specific protein, could we step in an activate it?

This gene activation often is the result of the ambient we live in, of what we eat, of the type of life we live… All this goes under the name “epigenetics”, the activation/regulation of genes resulting from external factors, and epigenetics may be the cause of diseases.

Researchers are exploring the possibility of controlling the gene activation (or blocking them) as a way to fine tune the DNA. The ongoing effort is well described in a recent article on Wired. The approach is interesting since it does not involve any change in the DNA (hence avoiding ethical issues), yet achieving (in many situations) the same result.

A good example of the potential of this approach is given in an article on Science Advances reporting the results of fine tuning to relieve anxiety in adults that have made eccessive use of alcohol in their youth. Excessive use of alcohol (too many binges) in youth induce an epigenetic re-programming of some genes that later in life will lead to anxiety in adult. Epigenomic editing can ameliorate the situation.

It is just an example, but it is significant in showing that we can have an effective approach to regulate epigenetic traits, even fixing undesired ones that originated way in the past, as shown in the example.

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the New Initiative Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He is a member of the IEEE in 2050 Ad Hoc Committee. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.

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