The pathogenic role for heritable mutations in the DNA sequence of tumor suppressor and DNA repair genes has been well established in familial cancer syndromes. These germ line mutations confer a high risk of developing particular types of cancer, according to the gene affected, at a young age of onset when compared to sporadically arising cancers of a similar type. The widespread role for epigenetic dysregulation in the development and progression of sporadic cancers is also well recognized. However, it has only become apparent in recent years that epigenetic aberrations can also occur constitutionally to confer a similar cancer phenotype as a genetic mutation within the same gene. These epigenetic errors are termed "constitutional epimutations" and are characterized by promoter methylation and transcriptional silencing of a single allele of the gene in normal somatic tissues in the absence of a sequence mutation within the affected locus. This is best exemplified in Lynch syndrome, which is an autosomal dominant cancer susceptibility syndrome characterized by the early development of colorectal, uterine, and additional cancers exhibiting microsatellite instability due to impaired mismatch repair. Lynch syndrome is usually caused by heterozygous loss-of-function germ line mutations of the mismatch repair genes, namely MLH1, MSH2, MSH6, and PMS2. Tumors develop following an acquired somatic loss of the remaining functional allele. However, a subset of Lynch syndrome cases without genetic mutations instead has a constitutional epimutation of MLH1 or MSH2. These epimutations are associated with distinct patterns of inheritance depending on the nature of the mechanisms underlying them.
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