Epigenetic Inheritance: Concepts, Mechanisms and Perspectives

Front Mol Neurosci. 2018 Sep 28;11:292. doi: 10.3389/fnmol.2018.00292. eCollection 2018.


Parents' stressful experiences can influence an offspring's vulnerability to many pathological conditions, including psychopathologies, and their effects may even endure for several generations. Nevertheless, the cause of this phenomenon has not been determined, and only recently have scientists turned to epigenetics to answer this question. There is extensive literature on epigenetics, but no consensus exists with regard to how and what can (and must) be considered to study and define epigenetics processes and their inheritance. In this work, we aimed to clarify and systematize these concepts. To this end, we analyzed the dynamics of epigenetic changes over time in detail and defined three types of epigenetics: a direct form of epigenetics (DE) and two indirect epigenetic processes-within (WIE) and across (AIE). DE refers to changes that occur in the lifespan of an individual, due to direct experiences with his environment. WIE concerns changes that occur inside of the womb, due to events during gestation. Finally, AIE defines changes that affect the individual's predecessors (parents, grandparents, etc.), due to events that occur even long before conception and that are somehow (e.g., through gametes, the intrauterine environment setting) transmitted across generations. This distinction allows us to organize the main body of epigenetic evidence according to these categories and then focus on the latter (AIE), referring to it as a faster route of informational transmission across generations-compared with genetic inheritance-that guides human evolution in a Lamarckian (i.e., experience-dependent) manner. Of the molecular processes that are implicated in this phenomenon, well-known (methylation) and novel (non-coding RNA, ncRNA) regulatory mechanisms are converging. Our discussion of the chief methods that are used to study epigenetic inheritance highlights the most compelling technical and theoretical problems of this discipline. Experimental suggestions to expand this field are provided, and their practical and ethical implications are discussed extensively.

Keywords: epigenetic; inheritance; methylation; microRNA; psychopathology; stress; transgenerational; transmission.