Epigenetics meets endocrinology

J Mol Endocrinol. 2011 Feb;46(1):R11-32. doi: 10.1677/jme-10-0053.


Although genetics determines endocrine phenotypes, it cannot fully explain the great variability and reversibility of the system in response to environmental changes. Evidence now suggests that epigenetics, i.e. heritable but reversible changes in gene function without changes in nucleotide sequence, links genetics and environment in shaping endocrine function. Epigenetic mechanisms, including DNA methylation, histone modification, and microRNA, partition the genome into active and inactive domains based on endogenous and exogenous environmental changes and developmental stages, creating phenotype plasticity that can explain interindividual and population endocrine variability. We will review the current understanding of epigenetics in endocrinology, specifically, the regulation by epigenetics of the three levels of hormone action (synthesis and release, circulating and target tissue levels, and target-organ responsiveness) and the epigenetic action of endocrine disruptors. We will also discuss the impacts of hormones on epigenetics. We propose a three-dimensional model (genetics, environment, and developmental stage) to explain the phenomena related to progressive changes in endocrine functions with age, the early origin of endocrine disorders, phenotype discordance between monozygotic twins, rapid shifts in disease patterns among populations experiencing major lifestyle changes such as immigration, and the many endocrine disruptions in contemporary life. We emphasize that the key for understanding epigenetics in endocrinology is the identification, through advanced high-throughput screening technologies, of plasticity genes or loci that respond directly to a specific environmental stimulus. Investigations to determine whether epigenetic changes induced by today's lifestyles or environmental 'exposures' can be inherited and are reversible should open doors for applying epigenetics to the prevention and treatment of endocrine disorders.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Calcitriol / metabolism
  • DNA Methylation
  • Endocrine Disruptors / toxicity
  • Endocrine Glands / metabolism*
  • Endocrine System Diseases / genetics*
  • Endocrine System Diseases / metabolism
  • Epigenesis, Genetic*
  • Gonadal Steroid Hormones / metabolism
  • Gonadal Steroid Hormones / pharmacology
  • Histones / metabolism
  • Humans
  • MicroRNAs / genetics
  • Peptide Hormones / genetics
  • Peptide Hormones / metabolism
  • Phenotype
  • Thyroid Hormones / metabolism
  • Tretinoin / metabolism


  • Endocrine Disruptors
  • Gonadal Steroid Hormones
  • Histones
  • MicroRNAs
  • Peptide Hormones
  • Thyroid Hormones
  • Tretinoin
  • Calcitriol