This year's Abcam conference on 'non-coding RNAs, epigenetics and transgenerational inheritance' had a distinct Lamarckian flavor with conference Chair and 2013 Hooke medal recipient, Eric Miska, recommending Arthur Koestler's 'The case of the midwife toad' as extracurricular reading. In addition to his literary recommendations Miska discussed his recently published observations on the ability of piRNA phenotypes to be inherited through generations in C. elegans. The nematode and RNAi theme was continued in Scott Kennedy's talk, which focused on his recently published work on identifying genes required for RNAi inheritance in C. elegans. He identified such genes through screening for mutants defective in transmitting RNAi phenotypes to the next generation, but which are still able to perform RNAi themselves. This has led to the identification of the nuclear argonaute protein HRDE-1, which directs silencing in germlines. Interestingly, hdre-1 deficient worms exhibit mortal germlines, which through successive generations ultimately leads to sterility.
Peter Sarkies, a Post-doc in the Miska lab, shared his exciting work on understanding the function of the RNAi pathway in nematodes, which clearly hasn't arisen purely for the benefit of molecular biologists. Oded Rechavi continued this theme with a discussion on the function of trangenerational RNAi. His work, published in Cell 2011, has identified the trangenerational inheritance of virus-derived siRNAs, suggesting that this mechanism may be involved in providing protection to offspring. However, to date only one C. elegans-infecting virus has been identified.
Transgenerational epigenetic inheritance was examined not only in nematodes but also in mouse models, including a presentation of ongoing work by Erica Watson on the analysis of transgenerational epigenetic effects due to abnormal folate metabolism using a mouse model deficient in a key folate metabolism enzyme. Anne Ferguson-Smith discussed recent work that follows on from previous publications on a mouse model of intergenerational epigenetic inheritance. This model is concerned with the effects of severe maternal caloric restriction, which leads to low birth weight offspring – a characteristic that is known to be associated with increased risk of obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease later in adult life. This effect is transmitted over at least two generations and her talk focused on understanding the underlying epigenetic modifications responsible for this phenotype.
Investigation of transgenerational epigenetic inheritance in plants was also discussed, including a delightful presentation by Genome Biology Editorial Board Member David Baulcombe on generating transgenic plants. As previously shown by Baulcombe, sRNAs can move through the plant to distant locations, including across the grafted region of two plants. Baulcombe's recent work has shown that this phenomena can be exploited in order to generate (epi)genetically modified plants.
While transgenerational inheritance and small RNAs appeared to dominate the talks, long non-coding RNAs were not forgotten with a truly absorbing talk by Genome Biology Editorial Board Member John Rinn on his recent work into understanding the functional of individual lncRNAs.
This two-day conference highlighted some of the major areas of investigation in this relatively young field, in particular the observance that acquired traits, mediated through epigenetic effects, can be passed onto offspring in a rather Lamarckian fashion.