Regulation of gene expression

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Regulation of gene expression by a hormone receptor Regulation of gene expression by steroid hormone receptor.svg
Regulation of gene expression by a hormone receptor
Diagram showing at which stages in the DNA-mRNA-protein pathway expression can be controlled Gene expression control.png
Diagram showing at which stages in the DNA-mRNA-protein pathway expression can be controlled

Regulation of gene expression, or gene regulation, [1] includes a wide range of mechanisms that are used by cells to increase or decrease the production of specific gene products (protein or RNA). Sophisticated programs of gene expression are widely observed in biology, for example to trigger developmental pathways, respond to environmental stimuli, or adapt to new food sources. Virtually any step of gene expression can be modulated, from transcriptional initiation, to RNA processing, and to the post-translational modification of a protein. Often, one gene regulator controls another, and so on, in a gene regulatory network.

Contents

Gene regulation is essential for viruses, prokaryotes and eukaryotes as it increases the versatility and adaptability of an organism by allowing the cell to express protein when needed. Although as early as 1951, Barbara McClintock showed interaction between two genetic loci, Activator (Ac) and Dissociator (Ds), in the color formation of maize seeds, the first discovery of a gene regulation system is widely considered to be the identification in 1961 of the lac operon, discovered by François Jacob and Jacques Monod, in which some enzymes involved in lactose metabolism are expressed by E. coli only in the presence of lactose and absence of glucose.

In multicellular organisms, gene regulation drives cellular differentiation and morphogenesis in the embryo, leading to the creation of different cell types that possess different gene expression profiles from the same genome sequence. Although this does not explain how gene regulation originated, evolutionary biologists include it as a partial explanation of how evolution works at a molecular level, and it is central to the science of evolutionary developmental biology ("evo-devo").

Regulated stages of gene expression

Any step of gene expression may be modulated, from the DNA-RNA transcription step to post-translational modification of a protein. The following is a list of stages where gene expression is regulated, the most extensively utilised point is Transcription Initiation:

Modification of DNA

Histone tails and their function in chromatin formation Histone tails and their function in chromatin formation.svg
Histone tails and their function in chromatin formation

In eukaryotes, the accessibility of large regions of DNA can depend on its chromatin structure, which can be altered as a result of histone modifications directed by DNA methylation, ncRNA, or DNA-binding protein. Hence these modifications may up or down regulate the expression of a gene. Some of these modifications that regulate gene expression are inheritable and are referred to as epigenetic regulation.

Structural

Transcription of DNA is dictated by its structure. In general, the density of its packing is indicative of the frequency of transcription. Octameric protein complexes called histones together with a segment of DNA wound around the eight histone proteins (together referred to as a nucleosome) are responsible for the amount of supercoiling of DNA, and these complexes can be temporarily modified by processes such as phosphorylation or more permanently modified by processes such as methylation. Such modifications are considered to be responsible for more or less permanent changes in gene expression levels. [2]

Chemical

Methylation of DNA is a common method of gene silencing. DNA is typically methylated by methyltransferase enzymes on cytosine nucleotides in a CpG dinucleotide sequence (also called "CpG islands" when densely clustered). Analysis of the pattern of methylation in a given region of DNA (which can be a promoter) can be achieved through a method called bisulfite mapping. Methylated cytosine residues are unchanged by the treatment, whereas unmethylated ones are changed to uracil. The differences are analyzed by DNA sequencing or by methods developed to quantify SNPs, such as Pyrosequencing (Biotage) or MassArray (Sequenom), measuring the relative amounts of C/T at the CG dinucleotide. Abnormal methylation patterns are thought to be involved in oncogenesis. [3]

Histone acetylation is also an important process in transcription. Histone acetyltransferase enzymes (HATs) such as CREB-binding protein also dissociate the DNA from the histone complex, allowing transcription to proceed. Often, DNA methylation and histone deacetylation work together in gene silencing. The combination of the two seems to be a signal for DNA to be packed more densely, lowering gene expression.[ citation needed ]

Regulation of transcription

1: RNA Polymerase, 2: Repressor, 3: Promoter, 4: Operator, 5: Lactose, 6: lacZ, 7: lacY, 8: lacA. Top: The gene is essentially turned off. There is no lactose to inhibit the repressor, so the repressor binds to the operator, which obstructs the RNA polymerase from binding to the promoter and making lactase. Bottom: The gene is turned on. Lactose is inhibiting the repressor, allowing the RNA polymerase to bind with the promoter, and express the genes, which synthesize lactase. Eventually, the lactase will digest all of the lactose, until there is none to bind to the repressor. The repressor will then bind to the operator, stopping the manufacture of lactase. Lac Operon.svg
1: RNA Polymerase, 2: Repressor, 3: Promoter, 4: Operator, 5: Lactose, 6: lacZ, 7: lacY, 8: lacA. Top: The gene is essentially turned off. There is no lactose to inhibit the repressor, so the repressor binds to the operator, which obstructs the RNA polymerase from binding to the promoter and making lactase. Bottom: The gene is turned on. Lactose is inhibiting the repressor, allowing the RNA polymerase to bind with the promoter, and express the genes, which synthesize lactase. Eventually, the lactase will digest all of the lactose, until there is none to bind to the repressor. The repressor will then bind to the operator, stopping the manufacture of lactase.

Regulation of transcription thus controls when transcription occurs and how much RNA is created. Transcription of a gene by RNA polymerase can be regulated by several mechanisms. Specificity factors alter the specificity of RNA polymerase for a given promoter or set of promoters, making it more or less likely to bind to them (i.e., sigma factors used in prokaryotic transcription). Repressors bind to the Operator, coding sequences on the DNA strand that are close to or overlapping the promoter region, impeding RNA polymerase's progress along the strand, thus impeding the expression of the gene. The image to the right demonstrates regulation by a repressor in the lac operon. General transcription factors position RNA polymerase at the start of a protein-coding sequence and then release the polymerase to transcribe the mRNA. Activators enhance the interaction between RNA polymerase and a particular promoter, encouraging the expression of the gene. Activators do this by increasing the attraction of RNA polymerase for the promoter, through interactions with subunits of the RNA polymerase or indirectly by changing the structure of the DNA. Enhancers are sites on the DNA helix that are bound by activators in order to loop the DNA bringing a specific promoter to the initiation complex. Enhancers are much more common in eukaryotes than prokaryotes, where only a few examples exist (to date). [4] Silencers are regions of DNA sequences that, when bound by particular transcription factors, can silence expression of the gene.

Regulation of transcription in cancer

In vertebrates, the majority of gene promoters contain a CpG island with numerous CpG sites. [5] When many of a gene's promoter CpG sites are methylated the gene becomes silenced. [6] Colorectal cancers typically have 3 to 6 driver mutations and 33 to 66 hitchhiker or passenger mutations. [7] However, transcriptional silencing may be of more importance than mutation in causing progression to cancer. For example, in colorectal cancers about 600 to 800 genes are transcriptionally silenced by CpG island methylation (see regulation of transcription in cancer). Transcriptional repression in cancer can also occur by other epigenetic mechanisms, such as altered expression of microRNAs. [8] In breast cancer, transcriptional repression of BRCA1 may occur more frequently by over-expressed microRNA-182 than by hypermethylation of the BRCA1 promoter (see Low expression of BRCA1 in breast and ovarian cancers).

Regulation of transcription in addiction

One of the cardinal features of addiction is its persistence. The persistent behavioral changes appear to be due to long-lasting changes, resulting from epigenetic alterations affecting gene expression, within particular regions of the brain. [9] Drugs of abuse cause three types of epigenetic alteration in the brain. These are (1) histone acetylations and histone methylations, (2) DNA methylation at CpG sites, and (3) epigenetic downregulation or upregulation of microRNAs. [9] [10] (See Epigenetics of cocaine addiction for some details.)

Chronic nicotine intake in mice alters brain cell epigenetic control of gene expression through acetylation of histones. This increases expression in the brain of the protein FosB, important in addiction. [11] Cigarette addiction was also studied in about 16,000 humans, including never smokers, current smokers, and those who had quit smoking for up to 30 years. [12] In blood cells, more than 18,000 CpG sites (of the roughly 450,000 analyzed CpG sites in the genome) had frequently altered methylation among current smokers. These CpG sites occurred in over 7,000 genes, or roughly a third of known human genes. The majority of the differentially methylated CpG sites returned to the level of never-smokers within five years of smoking cessation. However, 2,568 CpGs among 942 genes remained differentially methylated in former versus never smokers. Such remaining epigenetic changes can be viewed as “molecular scars” [10] that may affect gene expression.

In rodent models, drugs of abuse, including cocaine, [13] methamphetamine, [14] [15] alcohol [16] and tobacco smoke products, [17] all cause DNA damage in the brain. During repair of DNA damages some individual repair events can alter the methylation of DNA and/or the acetylations or methylations of histones at the sites of damage, and thus can contribute to leaving an epigenetic scar on chromatin. [18]

Such epigenetic scars likely contribute to the persistent epigenetic changes found in addiction.

Regulation of transcription in learning and memory

DNA methylation is the addition of a methyl group to the DNA that happens at cytosine. The image shows a cytosine single ring base and a methyl group added on to the 5 carbon. In mammals, DNA methylation occurs almost exclusively at a cytosine that is followed by a guanine. DNA methylation.png
DNA methylation is the addition of a methyl group to the DNA that happens at cytosine. The image shows a cytosine single ring base and a methyl group added on to the 5 carbon. In mammals, DNA methylation occurs almost exclusively at a cytosine that is followed by a guanine.

In mammals, methylation of cytosine (see Figure) in DNA is a major regulatory mediator. Methylated cytosines primarily occur in dinucleotide sequences where cytosine is followed by a guanine, a CpG site. The total number of CpG sites in the human genome is approximately 28 million. [19] and generally about 70% of all CpG sites have a methylated cytosine. [20]

The identified areas of the human brain are involved in memory formation. Brain regions involved in memory formation.jpg
The identified areas of the human brain are involved in memory formation.

In a rat, a painful learning experience, contextual fear conditioning, can result in a life-long fearful memory after a single training event. [21] Cytosine methylation is altered in the promoter regions of about 9.17% of all genes in the hippocampus neuron DNA of a rat that has been subjected to a brief fear conditioning experience. [22] The hippocampus is where new memories are initially stored.

Methylation of CpGs in a promoter region of a gene represses transcription [23] while methylation of CpGs in the body of a gene increases expression. [24] TET enzymes play a central role in demethylation of methylated cytosines. Demethylation of CpGs in a gene promoter by TET enzyme activity increases transcription of the gene. [25]

When contextual fear conditioning is applied to a rat, more than 5,000 differentially methylated regions (DMRs) (of 500 nucleotides each) occur in the rat hippocampus neural genome both one hour and 24 hours after the conditioning in the hippocampus. [22] This causes about 500 genes to be up-regulated (often due to demethylation of CpG sites in a promoter region) and about 1,000 genes to be down-regulated (often due to newly formed 5-methylcytosine at CpG sites in a promoter region). The pattern of induced and repressed genes within neurons appears to provide a molecular basis for forming the first transient memory of this training event in the hippocampus of the rat brain. [22]

Post-transcriptional regulation

After the DNA is transcribed and mRNA is formed, there must be some sort of regulation on how much the mRNA is translated into proteins. Cells do this by modulating the capping, splicing, addition of a Poly(A) Tail, the sequence-specific nuclear export rates, and, in several contexts, sequestration of the RNA transcript. These processes occur in eukaryotes but not in prokaryotes. This modulation is a result of a protein or transcript that, in turn, is regulated and may have an affinity for certain sequences.

Three prime untranslated regions and microRNAs

Three prime untranslated regions (3'-UTRs) of messenger RNAs (mRNAs) often contain regulatory sequences that post-transcriptionally influence gene expression. [26] Such 3'-UTRs often contain both binding sites for microRNAs (miRNAs) as well as for regulatory proteins. By binding to specific sites within the 3'-UTR, miRNAs can decrease gene expression of various mRNAs by either inhibiting translation or directly causing degradation of the transcript. The 3'-UTR also may have silencer regions that bind repressor proteins that inhibit the expression of a mRNA.

The 3'-UTR often contains miRNA response elements (MREs). MREs are sequences to which miRNAs bind. These are prevalent motifs within 3'-UTRs. Among all regulatory motifs within the 3'-UTRs (e.g. including silencer regions), MREs make up about half of the motifs.

As of 2014, the miRBase web site, [27] an archive of miRNA sequences and annotations, listed 28,645 entries in 233 biologic species. Of these, 1,881 miRNAs were in annotated human miRNA loci. miRNAs were predicted to have an average of about four hundred target mRNAs (affecting expression of several hundred genes). [28] Freidman et al. [28] estimate that >45,000 miRNA target sites within human mRNA 3'-UTRs are conserved above background levels, and >60% of human protein-coding genes have been under selective pressure to maintain pairing to miRNAs.

Direct experiments show that a single miRNA can reduce the stability of hundreds of unique mRNAs. [29] Other experiments show that a single miRNA may repress the production of hundreds of proteins, but that this repression often is relatively mild (less than 2-fold). [30] [31]

The effects of miRNA dysregulation of gene expression seem to be important in cancer. [32] For instance, in gastrointestinal cancers, a 2015 paper identified nine miRNAs as epigenetically altered and effective in down-regulating DNA repair enzymes. [33]

The effects of miRNA dysregulation of gene expression also seem to be important in neuropsychiatric disorders, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder, Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease and autism spectrum disorders. [34] [35] [36]

Regulation of translation

The translation of mRNA can also be controlled by a number of mechanisms, mostly at the level of initiation. Recruitment of the small ribosomal subunit can indeed be modulated by mRNA secondary structure, antisense RNA binding, or protein binding. In both prokaryotes and eukaryotes, a large number of RNA binding proteins exist, which often are directed to their target sequence by the secondary structure of the transcript, which may change depending on certain conditions, such as temperature or presence of a ligand (aptamer). Some transcripts act as ribozymes and self-regulate their expression.

Examples of gene regulation

Developmental biology

A large number of studied regulatory systems come from developmental biology. Examples include:

Circuitry

Up-regulation and down-regulation

Up-regulation is a process that occurs within a cell triggered by a signal (originating internal or external to the cell), which results in increased expression of one or more genes and as a result the proteins encoded by those genes. Conversely, down-regulation is a process resulting in decreased gene and corresponding protein expression.

Inducible vs. repressible systems

Gene Regulation can be summarized by the response of the respective system:

The GAL4/UAS system is an example of both an inducible and repressible system. Gal4 binds an upstream activation sequence (UAS) to activate the transcription of the GAL1/GAL7/GAL10 cassette. On the other hand, a MIG1 response to the presence of glucose can inhibit GAL4 and therefore stop the expression of the GAL1/GAL7/GAL10 cassette. [40]

Theoretical circuits

Study methods

In general, most experiments investigating differential expression used whole cell extracts of RNA, called steady-state levels, to determine which genes changed and by how much. These are, however, not informative of where the regulation has occurred and may mask conflicting regulatory processes (see post-transcriptional regulation ), but it is still the most commonly analysed (quantitative PCR and DNA microarray).

When studying gene expression, there are several methods to look at the various stages. In eukaryotes these include:

See also

Notes and references

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Bibliography

Related Research Articles

Epigenetics Study of heritable DNA and histone modifications that affect the expression of a gene without a change in its nucleotide sequence.

In biology, epigenetics is the study of heritable phenotype changes that do not involve alterations in the DNA sequence. The Greek prefix epi- in epigenetics implies features that are "on top of" or "in addition to" the traditional genetic basis for inheritance. Epigenetics most often involves changes that affect gene activity and expression, but the term can also be used to describe any heritable phenotypic change. Such effects on cellular and physiological phenotypic traits may result from external or environmental factors, or be part of normal development.

In the chemical sciences, methylation denotes the addition of a methyl group on a substrate, or the substitution of an atom by a methyl group. Methylation is a form of alkylation, with a methyl group replacing a hydrogen atom. These terms are commonly used in chemistry, biochemistry, soil science, and the biological sciences.

Gene expression Conversion of a genes sequence into a mature gene product or products

Gene expression is the process by which information from a gene is used in the synthesis of a functional gene product that enables it to produce end products, protein or non-coding RNA, and ultimately affect a phenotype, as the final effect. These products are often proteins, but in non-protein-coding genes such as transfer RNA (tRNA) and small nuclear RNA (snRNA), the product is a functional non-coding RNA. Gene expression is summarized in the central dogma of molecular biology first formulated by Francis Crick in 1958, further developed in his 1970 article, and expanded by the subsequent discoveries of reverse transcription and RNA replication.

Transcription (biology) Process of copying a segment of DNA into RNA

Transcription is the process of copying a segment of DNA into RNA. The segments of DNA transcribed into RNA molecules that can encode proteins are said to produce messenger RNA (mRNA). Other segments of DNA are copied into RNA molecules called non-coding RNAs (ncRNAs). Averaged over multiple cell types in a given tissue, the quantity of mRNA is more than 10 times the quantity of ncRNA. The general preponderance of mRNA in cells is valid even though less than 2% of the human genome can be transcribed into mRNA, while at least 80% of mammalian genomic DNA can be actively transcribed, with the majority of this 80% considered to be ncRNA.

CpG site Region of often-methylated DNA with a cytosine followed by a guanine

The CpG sites or CG sites are regions of DNA where a cytosine nucleotide is followed by a guanine nucleotide in the linear sequence of bases along its 5' → 3' direction. CpG sites occur with high frequency in genomic regions called CpG islands. Cytosines in CpG dinucleotides can be methylated to form 5-methylcytosines. Enzymes that add a methyl group are called DNA methyltransferases. In mammals, 70% to 80% of CpG cytosines are methylated. Methylating the cytosine within a gene can change its expression, a mechanism that is part of a larger field of science studying gene regulation that is called epigenetics.

A regulatory sequence is a segment of a nucleic acid molecule which is capable of increasing or decreasing the expression of specific genes within an organism. Regulation of gene expression is an essential feature of all living organisms and viruses.

In molecular biology and genetics, transcriptional regulation is the means by which a cell regulates the conversion of DNA to RNA (transcription), thereby orchestrating gene activity. A single gene can be regulated in a range of ways, from altering the number of copies of RNA that are transcribed, to the temporal control of when the gene is transcribed. This control allows the cell or organism to respond to a variety of intra- and extracellular signals and thus mount a response. Some examples of this include producing the mRNA that encode enzymes to adapt to a change in a food source, producing the gene products involved in cell cycle specific activities, and producing the gene products responsible for cellular differentiation in multicellular eukaryotes, as studied in evolutionary developmental biology.

DNA methylation Biological process

DNA methylation is a biological process by which methyl groups are added to the DNA molecule. Methylation can change the activity of a DNA segment without changing the sequence. When located in a gene promoter, DNA methylation typically acts to repress gene transcription. In mammals, DNA methylation is essential for normal development and is associated with a number of key processes including genomic imprinting, X-chromosome inactivation, repression of transposable elements, aging, and carcinogenesis.

Epigenomics is the study of the complete set of epigenetic modifications on the genetic material of a cell, known as the epigenome. The field is analogous to genomics and proteomics, which are the study of the genome and proteome of a cell. Epigenetic modifications are reversible modifications on a cell's DNA or histones that affect gene expression without altering the DNA sequence. Epigenomic maintenance is a continuous process and plays an important role in stability of eukaryotic genomes by taking part in crucial biological mechanisms like DNA repair. Plant flavones are said to be inhibiting epigenomic marks that cause cancers. Two of the most characterized epigenetic modifications are DNA methylation and histone modification. Epigenetic modifications play an important role in gene expression and regulation, and are involved in numerous cellular processes such as in differentiation/development and tumorigenesis. The study of epigenetics on a global level has been made possible only recently through the adaptation of genomic high-throughput assays.

HBx

HBx is a hepatitis B viral protein. It is 154 amino acids long and interferes with transcription, signal transduction, cell cycle progress, protein degradation, apoptosis and chromosomal stability in the host. It forms a heterodimeric complex with its cellular target protein, and this interaction dysregulates centrosome dynamics and mitotic spindle formation. It interacts with DDB1 redirecting the ubiquitin ligase activity of the CUL4-DDB1 E3 complexes, which are intimately involved in the intracellular regulation of DNA replication and repair, transcription and signal transduction.

Cancer epigenetics Field of study in cancer research

Cancer epigenetics is the study of epigenetic modifications to the DNA of cancer cells that do not involve a change in the nucleotide sequence, but instead involve a change in the way the genetic code is expressed. Epigenetic mechanisms are necessary to maintain normal sequences of tissue specific gene expression and are crucial for normal development. They may be just as important, or even more important, than genetic mutations in a cell's transformation to cancer. The disturbance of epigenetic processes in cancers, can lead to a loss of expression of genes that occurs about 10 times more frequently by transcription silencing than by mutations. As Vogelstein et al. point out, in a colorectal cancer there are usually about 3 to 6 driver mutations and 33 to 66 hitchhiker or passenger mutations. However, in colon tumors compared to adjacent normal-appearing colonic mucosa, there are about 600 to 800 heavily methylated CpG islands in promoters of genes in the tumors while these CpG islands are not methylated in the adjacent mucosa. Manipulation of epigenetic alterations holds great promise for cancer prevention, detection, and therapy. In different types of cancer, a variety of epigenetic mechanisms can be perturbed, such as silencing of tumor suppressor genes and activation of oncogenes by altered CpG island methylation patterns, histone modifications, and dysregulation of DNA binding proteins. Several medications which have epigenetic impact are now used in several of these diseases.

Embryonic stem cells are capable of self-renewing and differentiating to the desired fate depending on its position within the body. Stem cell homeostasis is maintained through epigenetic mechanisms that are highly dynamic in regulating the chromatin structure as well as specific gene transcription programs. Epigenetics has been used to refer to changes in gene expression, which are heritable through modifications not affecting the DNA sequence.

Epigenetics is the study of heritable changes in gene expression which do not result from modifications to the sequence of DNA. Neurogenesis is the mechanism for neuron proliferation and differentiation. It entails many different complex processes which are all time and order dependent. Processes such as neuron proliferation, fate specification, differentiation, maturation, and functional integration of newborn cells into existing neuronal networks are all interconnected. In the past decade many epigenetic regulatory mechanisms have been shown to play a large role in the timing and determination of neural stem cell lineages.

Epigenetics of physical exercise is the study of epigenetic modifications resulting from physical exercise to the genome of cells. Epigenetic modifications are heritable alterations that are not due to changes in the sequence of nucleotides. Epigenetic modifications, such as histone modifications and DNA methylation, alter the accessibility to DNA and change chromatin structure, thereby regulating patterns of gene expression. Methylated histones can act as binding sites for certain transcription factors due to their bromodomains and chromodomains. Methylated histones can also prevent the binding of transcription factors by hiding the transcription factor's recognition site, which is usually found on the major groove of DNA. The methyl groups bound to the cytosine residues lie in the major groove of DNA, the same region most transcription factors use to read a DNA sequence. A common epigenetic tag found in DNA is the covalent attachment of a methyl group to the C5 position of the cytosine found in CpG dinucleotide sequences. CpG methylation is an important mechanism of transcriptional silencing. Methylation of CpG islands is shown to reduce gene expression by the formation of tightly condensed heterochromatin that is transcriptionally inactive. CpG sites in a gene are most commonly found in the promoter regions of a gene while also being present in non promoter regions. The CpG sites in non promoter regions tend to be constitutively methylated, causing transcription machinery to ignore them as possible promoters. The CpG site near promoter regions are mostly left unmethylated until a cell decides to methylate them and repress transcription. Methylation of CpGs in promoter regions result in the transcriptional silencing of a gene. Environmental factors including physical exercise have been shown to have a beneficial influence on epigenetic modifications.

Melanoma is a rare but aggressive malignant cancer that originates from melanocytes. These melanocytes are cells found in the basal layer of the epidermis that produce melanin under the control of melanocyte-stimulating hormone. Despite the fact that melanoma represents only a small number of all skin cancers, it is the cause of more than 50% of cancer-related deaths. The high metastatic qualities and death rate, and also its prevalence among people of younger ages have caused melanoma to become a highly researched malignant cancer. Epigenetic modifications are suspected to influence the emergence of many types of cancer-related diseases, and are also suspected to have a role in the development of melanoma.

Epigenetics of human herpesvirus latency

Human Herpes Viruses, also known as HHVs, are part of a family of DNA viruses that cause several diseases in humans. One of the most notable functions of this virus family is their ability to enter a latent phase and lay dormant within animals for extended periods of time. The mechanism that controls this is very complex because expression of viral proteins during latency is decreased a great deal, meaning that the virus must have transcription of its genes repressed. There are many factors and mechanisms that control this process and epigenetics is one way this is accomplished. Epigenetics refers to persistent changes in expression patterns that are not caused by changes to the DNA sequence. This happens through mechanisms such as methylation and acetylation of histones, DNA methylation, and non-coding RNAs (ncRNA). Altering the acetylation of histones creates changes in expression by changing the binding affinity of histones to DNA, making it harder or easier for transcription machinery to access the DNA. Methyl and acetyl groups can also act as binding sites for transcription factors and enzymes that further modify histones or alter the DNA itself.

Generally, in progression to cancer, hundreds of genes are silenced or activated. Although silencing of some genes in cancers occurs by mutation, a large proportion of carcinogenic gene silencing is a result of altered DNA methylation. DNA methylation causing silencing in cancer typically occurs at multiple CpG sites in the CpG islands that are present in the promoters of protein coding genes.

DNA methylation in cancer plays a variety of roles, helping to change the healthy regulation of gene expression to a disease pattern.

Pharmacoepigenetics is an emerging field that studies the underlying epigenetic marking patterns that lead to variation in an individual's response to medical treatment.

Cigarette smoking has been found to affect global epigenetic regulation of transcription across tissue types. Studies have shown differences in epigenetic markers like DNA methylation, histone modifications and miRNA expression between smokers and non-smokers. Similar differences exist in children whose mothers smoked during pregnancy. These epigenetic effects are thought to be linked to many of negative health effects associated with smoking.