Here in the Wirtz lab, we are beginning to connect physical properties of cells with genetic expression. All cells in a Petri dish of the same cell type supposedly have identical DNA sequences. But what makes the cells appear to have different shapes and sizes, and why do some cells respond to stimuli differently from others?
These questions have led us to epigenetics, the study of inheritable changes in gene activity that do not involve any changes in the genetic code. These changes most often include the modification of DNA and histones, proteins found in nuclei that the DNA is wound around, by addition or subtraction of functional groups (acetylation, methylation, etc.).
The modifications affect how “open” or “closed” the DNA is and therefore define when and where transcription of DNA to make proteins can occur. I recently attended a fascinating conference on the subject which just so happened to be held on the gorgeous Grand Cayman Island. Here I summarized a few of the conference talks for Epigenie, a science news site focused on epigenetics research.
Story by Allison Chambliss, who is entering her fifth year as a PhD student in the laboratory of Denis Wirtz in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering.