Genome Biology’s two-mile high epigenomic epiphanies

"A Lamarckian contribution to natural selection doesn't make much sense to me," says father-of-(modern) epigenetics Andy Feinberg as he opens his talk at the Keystone Symposium on Epigenomics.

Admittedly, expressing skepticism toward Lamarck's theory on the heritability of acquired traits is hardly controversial in the 21st century, but a number of better accepted theories were also challenged during the meeting, which was held concurrently with the Keystone Symposium on Chromatin Dynamics January 17-22 in Keystone, CO.

Tim Bestor (Columbia) came fully armed and ready for a fight as he took on the prevailing truth in the literature that promoter CpG hypermethylation is a pathogenic feature of many tumors. But, strikingly, the audience response was one of agreement with Bestor's line of argument. An overreliance on tissue culture cell lines was blamed for the unrepresentative reporting of tumor cell methylation patterns.

The importance of avoiding generalizations from results observed in a given cellular context was a strong message from the meeting, and multiple presentations reported remarkably high cell-type specificity for a range of epigenomic features.

Another theory to find itself in the crosshairs was that of an independent functional significance for histone modifications; instead, it was argued that the distribution of these marks is merely reflective of polymerase activity and of chromatin openness.

The conference organizers believe that the turnout (~650 participants) is a world record for an epigenomics meeting, a clear sign that the field is in its ascendancy. Methodological innovations – such as the Dekker lab's HiC approach to mapping the genome in 3D, Paul Soloway's high-throughput fluorescent chromatin sorting, and high resolution DNA-protein interaction mapping methods developed by the Henikoff and Pugh* labs – show that there is plenty of potential for epigenomics to continue its upward momentum. Perfect timing, then, for this year's Genome Biology special issue focusing on epigenomics, for which we are now accepting submissions. BioMed Central is also the publisher of Epigenetics & Chromatin, an open access journal dedicated to this topic, which boasts Steve Henikoff and Frank Grosveld as hands-on Editors-in-Chief.

A final thought: maybe it was just the thin mountain air befuddling the mind, but some of the work presented on heritable epialleles and mobile sRNAs in plants did seem, after all, to offer renewed hope for a quasi-Lamarckian inheritance (propagation of an acquired trait for a few generations, if not in permanency).

*see our Research Highlight by Eric Mendenhall and Brad Bernstein on the Pugh lab's ChIP-exo method

See also:  Genome Biology's Twitter stream for a more detailed account of the Symposia

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