Background: A defining feature of sexual reproduction is the transmission of genomic information from both parents to the offspring. There is now compelling evidence that the inheritance of such genetic information is accompanied by additional epigenetic marks, or stable heritable information that is not accounted for by variations in DNA sequence. The reversible nature of epigenetic marks coupled with multiple rounds of epigenetic reprogramming that erase the majority of existing patterns have made the investigation of this phenomenon challenging. However, continual advances in molecular methods are allowing closer examination of the dynamic alterations to histone composition and DNA methylation patterns that accompany development and, in particular, how these modifications can occur in an individual's germline and be transmitted to the following generation. While the underlying mechanisms that permit this form of transgenerational inheritance remain unclear, it is increasingly apparent that a combination of genetic and epigenetic modifications plays major roles in determining the phenotypes of individuals and their offspring.
Objective and rationale: Information pertaining to transgenerational inheritance was systematically reviewed focusing primarily on mammalian cells to the exclusion of inheritance in plants, due to inherent differences in the means by which information is transmitted between generations. The effects of environmental factors and biological processes on both epigenetic and genetic information were reviewed to determine their contribution to modulating inheritable phenotypes.
Search methods: Articles indexed in PubMed were searched using keywords related to transgenerational inheritance, epigenetic modifications, paternal and maternal inheritable traits and environmental and biological factors influencing transgenerational modifications. We sought to clarify the role of epigenetic reprogramming events during the life cycle of mammals and provide a comprehensive review of how the genomic and epigenomic make-up of progenitors may determine the phenotype of its descendants.
Outcomes: We found strong evidence supporting the role of DNA methylation patterns, histone modifications and even non-protein-coding RNA in altering the epigenetic composition of individuals and producing stable epigenetic effects that were transmitted from parents to offspring, in both humans and rodent species. Multiple genomic domains and several histone modification sites were found to resist demethylation and endure genome-wide reprogramming events. Epigenetic modifications integrated into the genome of individuals were shown to modulate gene expression and activity at enhancer and promoter domains, while genetic mutations were shown to alter sequence availability for methylation and histone binding. Fundamentally, alterations to the nuclear composition of the germline in response to environmental factors, ageing, diet and toxicant exposure have the potential to become hereditably transmitted.
Wider implications: The environment influences the health and well-being of progeny by working through the germline to introduce spontaneous genetic mutations as well as a variety of epigenetic changes, including alterations in DNA methylation status and the post-translational modification of histones. In evolutionary terms, these changes create the phenotypic diversity that fuels the fires of natural selection. However, rather than being adaptive, such variation may also generate a plethora of pathological disease states ranging from dominant genetic disorders to neurological conditions, including spontaneous schizophrenia and autism.
Keywords: disease aetiology; epigenetic inheritance; epigenetic reprogramming; fertilization; genomics; germline; human reproduction; neurological diseases; non-genetic inheritance; transgenerational inheritance.
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