Epigenetics: a historical overview

Epigenetics. 2006 Apr-Jun;1(2):76-80. doi: 10.4161/epi.1.2.2762. Epub 2006 Mar 15.


In the first half of the twentieth century, developmental biology and genetics were separate disciplines. The word epigenetics was coined by Waddington to link the two fields. Epigenetics could be broadly defined as the sum of all those mechanisms necessary for the unfolding of the genetic programme for development. Several decades later specific mechanisms were proposed in which information was superimposed on DNA sequences. In particular, it was suggested that 5-methyl cytosine had a role in controlling gene expression, and also that the pattern of methylation was heritable. These predictions are now supported by a large body of evidence which shows that methylation is strongly associated with gene silencing in a variety of biological contexts. There are now also many examples of epigenetic inheritance through the germ line There are several other important epigenetic mechanisms involving chromatin and histone modifications, and also the expanding field of regulatory RNAs. The human epigenome project will unravel the pattern of DNA methylation in different tissues, and will this determine whether the regulation of gene expression is at the level of DNA or chromatin, or both.

Publication types

  • Historical Article

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Chromatin
  • DNA Methylation
  • Epigenesis, Genetic*
  • Genetics / history*
  • History, 20th Century
  • Humans


  • Chromatin