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Behavioral epigenetics

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Why do we grow up to have the traits we do? Most 20th century scientists answered this question by referring only to our genes and our environments. But recent discoveries in the emerging field of behavioral epigenetics have revealed factors at the interface between genes and environments that also play crucial roles in development. These factors affect how genes work; scientists now know that what matters as much as which genes you have (and what environments you encounter) is how your genes are affected by their contexts. The discovery that what our genes do depends in part on our experiences has shed light on how Nature and Nurture interact at the molecular level inside of our bodies. Data emerging from the world's behavioral epigenetics laboratories support the idea that a person's genes alone cannot determine if, for example, he or she will end up shy, suffering from cardiovascular disease, or extremely smart. Among the environmental factors that can influence genetic activity are parenting styles, diets, and social statuses. In addition to influencing how doctors treat diseases, discoveries about behavioral epigenetics are likely to alter how biologists think about evolution, because some epigenetic effects of experience appear to be transmissible from generation to generation. This domain of research will likely change how we think about the origins of human nature. WIREs Syst Biol Med 2017, 9:e1333. doi: 10.1002/wsbm.1333

A schematic diagram of the ‘life cycle’ of methylation under normal circumstances. DNA methylation is ‘erased’ once shortly after a new organism is conceived (a zygote is a newly conceived organism and a blastocyst is an early embryo), and once more in the primordial germ cells that will become that new organism's sperm or egg cells. (Reprinted with permission from Ref . Copyright 2015 Oxford University Press)
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A photograph of mice that are genetically identical, but nonetheless have a spectrum of coat colors. (Reprinted with permission from Ref . Copyright 2012)
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A photograph of a calico cat. Image courtesy of Howard Cheng.
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A schematic diagram of DNA pulled from a chromosome, showing the double helix wrapped around histones, and some epigenetic modifications to both the DNA and the histones.
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is a Professor in the Department of Biology and Biological Engineering at Chalmers University of Technology in Göteborg, Sweden. His research focus is on systems biology of metabolism. The yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae is the lab’s key organism for experimental research, but they also work with Aspergilli oryzae.

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