Exposure to environmental stressors, toxicants, and nutrient deficiencies can affect DNA in several ways. Some exposures cause damage and alter the structure of DNA, but there is increasing evidence that the same or other environmental exposures, including those that occur during fetal development in utero, can cause epigenetic effects that modulate DNA function and gene expression. Some epigenetic changes to DNA that affect gene transcription are at least partially reversible (i.e., they can be enzymatically reversed after cessation of exposure to environmental agents), but some epigenetic modifications seem to persist, even for decades. To explain the effects of early life experiences (such as famine and exposures to other stressors) on the long-term persistence of specific patterns of epigenetic modifications, such as DNA methylation, we propose an analogy with immune memory. We propose that an epigenetic memory can be established and maintained in self-renewing stem cell compartments. We suggest that the observations on early life effects on adult diseases and the persistence of methylation changes in smokers support our hypothesis, for which a mechanistic basis, however, needs to be further clarified. We outline a new model based on methylation changes. Although these changes seem to be mainly adaptive, they are also implicated in the pathogenesis and onset of diseases, depending on individual genotypic background and types of subsequent exposures. Elucidating the relationships between the adaptive and maladaptive consequences of the epigenetic modifications that result from complex environmental exposures is a major challenge for current and future research in epigenetics.-Vineis, P., Chatziioannou, A., Cunliffe, V. T., Flanagan, J. M., Hanson, M., Kirsch-Volders, M., Kyrtopoulos, S. Epigenetic memory in response to environmental stressors.
Keywords: DNA methylation; environmental exposures; genes.