New technique maps life's effects on our DNA

Jul 21 2014, 15:17 IST
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Researchers have developed a powerful new single-cell technique to help investigate how the environment affects our DNA. (Thinkstock) Researchers have developed a powerful new single-cell technique to help investigate how the environment affects our DNA. (Thinkstock)
SummaryThe technique can be used to map all of the 'epigenetic marks' on the DNA within a single cell.

Wonder how your environment is affecting your DNA? New technique can tell!

Researchers have developed a powerful new single-cell technique to help investigate how the environment affects our development and the traits we inherit from our parents.

The technique can be used to map all of the 'epigenetic marks' on the DNA within a single cell.

This single-cell approach will boost understanding of embryonic development, could enhance clinical applications like cancer therapy and fertility treatments, and has the potential to reduce the number of mice currently needed for this research.

'Epigenetic marks' are chemical tags or proteins that mark DNA and act as a kind of cellular memory. They do not change the DNA sequence but record a cell's experiences onto the DNA, which allows cells to remember an experience long after it has faded.

Placing these tags is part of normal development; they tell genes whether to be switched on or off and so can determine how the cell develops. Different sets of active genes make a skin cell different from a brain cell, for example.

However, environmental cues such as diet can also alter where epigenetic tags are laid down on DNA and influence an organism's long-term health.

"The ability to capture the full map of these epigenetic marks from individual cells will be critical for a full understanding of early embryonic development, cancer progression and aid the development of stem cell therapies," Dr Gavin Kelsey, from the Babraham Institute, UK said.

"Epigenetics research has mostly been reliant on using the mouse as a model organism to study early development.

"Our new single-cell method gives us an unprecedented ability to study epigenetic processes in human early embryonic development, which has been restricted by the very limited amount of tissue available for analysis," said Kelsey.

The research, published in journal Nature Methods, offers a new single-cell technique capable of analysing DNA methylation – one of the key epigenetic marks – across the whole genome. The method treats the cellular DNA with a chemical called bisulphite.

Treated DNA is then amplified and read on high - throughput sequencing machines to show up the location of methylation marks and the genes being affected.

These analyses will help to define how epigenetic changes in individual cells during early development drive cell fate. Current methods observe epigenetic marks in multiple, pooled cells.

This can obscure modifications taking place in individual cells at a

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