Epigenetic Evolution in a Model Plant

Science Daily brings us a study showing that epigenetic code potentially evolves much more rapidly than genetic code, which could take even more emphasis away from genes as the final determinant of phenotype. This sort of cancels out the optimism of Richard Resnick’s TED talk, though, doesn’t it? Merde. That’s how science goes though. 

(Epigenetic code: a term for modifications of the genome that affect how DNA is read and translated, without actually changing the genetic code. For example, all of our cells (except for some immune cells) have identical DNA, but they have vastly different properties and behaviour, thanks to the different ways that the same DNA is read.)

The study, published September 16 in the journal Science, provides the first evidence that an organism’s “epigenetic” code — an extra layer of biochemical instructions in DNA — can evolve more quickly than the genetic code and can strongly influence biological traits.

While the study was limited to a single plant species called Arabidopsis thaliana, the equivalent of the laboratory rat of the plant world, the findings hint that the traits of other organisms, including humans, might also be dramatically influenced by biological mechanisms that scientists are just beginning to understand.

“Our study shows that it’s not all in the genes,” said Joseph Ecker, a professor in Salk’s Plant Molecular and Cellular Biology Laboratory, who led the research team. “We found that these plants have an epigenetic code that’s more flexible and influential than we imagined. There is clearly a component of heritability that we don’t fully understand. It’s possible that we humans have a similarly active epigenetic mechanism that controls our biological characteristics and gets passed down to our children. “

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