Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Regulating genes to treat illness, grow food, and understand the brain

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Genes are not enough to explain the difference between a skin cell and a stem cell, a leaf cell and a root cell, or the complexity of the human brain. Genes don’t explain the subtle ways in which your parents’ environment before you were conceived might affect your offspring.

Another layer of complexity—the epigenome—is at work determining when and where genes are turned on and off.

Ryan Lister is unravelling this complexity. He’s created ways of mapping the millions of molecular markers of where genes have been switched on or off, has made the first maps of these markers in plants and humans, and revealed key differences between the markers in cells with different fates.

He’s created maps of the epigenome in plants, which could enable plant breeders to modify crops to increase yields without changing the underlying DNA.

He’s explained a challenge for stem cell medicine—showing how, when we persuade, for example, skin cells to turn into stem cells, these cells retain a memory of their past. Their epigenome is different to that of natural embryonic stem cells. He believes this molecular memory could be reversed.

He has also recently explored the most complex system we know—the human brain—discovering that its epigenome is extensively reconfigured in childhood during critical stages when the neural circuits are forming and maturing. These...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.