Family Ties

There’s more to inheritance than genes.

By | December 1, 2015

ANDRZEJ KRAUZEHolidays are synonymous with family gatherings. Multiple generations eat themselves into a stupor, and sparks of family tension frequently fly, kindled by old sibling rivalries or the often-fraught in-law relationship. Speaking of in-laws, one of my most memorable holiday meals was the Christmas when my mother-in-law looked across the dining room table and asked me, “How does it feel to have three children who look nothing like you?” Many years later, if she hadn’t been 98 and somewhat addled, she surely would have said something of that ilk to our daughter when, holding her days-old great-granddaughter in her lap, my mother-in-law posed for a photo that captured four generations.

Fascination with physical traits that are recognizable from one generation to another is nothing new. But the desire to go beyond subjective comparisons is at an all-time high. Advances in next-gen sequencing have spawned companies promising to suss out our Neanderthal percentage and/or our risk of acquiring any number of diseases. In this issue Oliver Rando (“Ghosts in the Genome”) outlines an entirely different method of trait transmission, called transgenerational epigenetic inheritance, that depends on alterations that do not affect the DNA sequence itself. The idea has long been controversial, but evidence is accumulating that a male’s or a female’s experience—be it stress, diet, or exposure to toxic substances—can affect future generations. Focusing on the paternal side of the equation, Rando discusses evidence from mouse studies that fathers can pass on more than just a haploid genome, including epigenetic marks on DNA that do not get completely erased after fertilization; small, noncoding RNAs; and even active seminal fluid factors.

Cellular Rehab” concerns the generational process, but in a completely different way. While the prime example of epigenetic inheritance is the production of committed cell types, such as liver or skin, the underlying premise of stem cell therapies is to encourage a less-committed cell type to regenerate damaged tissues or organs. Elie Dolgin, a news editor at the newly launched STAT, describes the new field of regenerative rehabilitation, which combines the benefits of cell and physical therapies. Transplanting muscle stem cells into mice that are then made to exercise, or mechanically stretching the cells before transplantation, can enhance muscle growth and strength.

Citation of scientific journal articles is also a form of inheritance, and errors or deliberate misrepresentations that aren’t corrected are like deleterious mutations that distort the transmission of knowledge. A trio of articles looks at the problem of retraction from several different angles. In “Scientific Misconduct: Red Flags,” attorney John R. Thomas Jr. outlines telltale signs that could ultimately result in flawed publications, and offers some guidance about what to do if you suspect a colleague of devious behavior. Retractions can result from a number of different problems, not all of them related to author misconduct. Once the need for retraction arises, however, there exists no accepted standard for how to handle the process, write Hervé Maisonneuve and Evelyne Decullier, who argue for the adoption of a simple form that would allow the writing of clearer, more informative retraction notices. And in a Careers article, “Self Correction,” Associate Editor Kerry Grens takes a look at how to go about retracting one’s own article(s) after realizing that errors necessitate such a step.

Finally, 2015 wouldn’t be complete without listing the winners of our eighth annual Top Ten Innovations competition. The exciting new products that earned top spots in the minds of our independent judges include reagent kits that characterize energy profiles and immune states, a light microscope that can peer deep into living cells with 3-D detail, and even a next-gen sequencer for the forensic laboratory fully capable of proving the relationship between me and my children.

Catch you next year. 

Mary Beth Aberlin  Editor-in-Chief

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Avatar of: DaveSSI


Posts: 9

December 3, 2015

Science once again acting out like the Monty Python "Only Thing" skit.  Of course there is far more to phenotype than genotype.  Science contiually acts as though what it knows is mostly all there is to know except for a few loose ends, the antithesis of real science.  Thinking of the genome as all there is to know is like buying a DEC Rainbow personal computer back in the 1980's and then finding out it didn't even have an operating system and actual programs never did arrive.  Not only is the genome not the only thing but its usual mechanism for change is not  acidental mutation with its vanishingly small likelyhood of benefit.  Other bits of phenotype provide the mechanism to prototype changes which when proving beneficial over the long term may be incorporated as hard changes to the genome.  To quote geneticist Eva Jablonka, "the genetic cart is led by the epigenetic horse" and the epigenetic bit contains a lot morre than methyl tags on genes.  But there's a warning, thinking about phenotype may well hurt our heads because as yet we know so little about how it is implemented.  Another example of how wide can be the gulf of understanding; it's only recently dawned on us that we directly depend for life upon an order of magnitude more genes than are in our actual genome because the genes in the essential symbiotic organisms in the gut alone contain that many more genes than are in our genome.   We need to get our understanding of our genome in proper perspective.  Right now we have a genome-centered view analagous to the Earth-centered view of the universe of not so long ago.

Avatar of: Jay Thakar

Jay Thakar

Posts: 16

December 25, 2015

The story on epigenetics tells us that more we know, more we don't know. Meanwhile the search for the perfection (Nirvana) continues. Just to mentioned that in Hindu belief some portion of the inheritance and hence the phenotype is derived from the previous birth of soul. I think this referred to as PINDDEH or I may say it as BIJDEH, the inheritance attached to mental activities of a person.

Avatar of: Zarathrustra


Posts: 2

December 25, 2015

I may be missing something, but ever since epigenetics came on the scene, it seemed to me that this did to some extent validate Lamark's thesis - but I've never seen this commented one. Oh, and wasn't there a Russian - Lysenko? - who theorised along the same lines. Both were ridiculed for a long time. Not any more?

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