Received October 9, 2004
The science of epigenetics is the study of all those mechanisms that control the unfolding of the genetic program for development and determine the phenotypes of differentiated cells. The pattern of gene expression in each of these cells is called the epigenotype. The best known and most thoroughly studied epigenetic mechanism is DNA methylation, which provides a basis both for the switching of gene activities, and the maintenance of stable phenotypes. The human epigenome project is the determination of the pattern of DNA methylation in multiple cell types. Some methylation sites, such as those in repeated genetic elements, are likely to be the same in all cell types, but genes with specialized functions will have distinct patterns of DNA methylation. Another project for the future is the study of the reprogramming of the genome in gametogenesis and early development. Much is already known about the de novo methylation of tumor suppressor genes in cancer cells, but the significance of epigenetic defects during ageing and in some familial diseases remains to be determined.
KEY WORDS: epigenetics, cancer, DNA methylation