Genetic studies traditionally focus on DNA as the molecule that passes information on from parents to their offspring. Changes in the DNA code alter heritable information and can more or less severely affect the progeny's phenotype. While the idea that information can be inherited between generations independently of the DNA's nucleotide sequence is not new, the outcome of recent studies provides a mechanistic foundation for the concept. In this review, we attempt to summarize our current knowledge about the transgenerational inheritance of environmentally induced epigenetic changes. We focus primarily on studies using mice but refer to other species to illustrate salient points. Some studies support the notion that there is a somatic component within the phenomenon of epigenetic inheritance. However, here, we will mostly focus on gamete-based processes and the primary molecular mechanisms that are thought to contribute to epigenetic inheritance: DNA methylation, histone modifications, and non-coding RNAs. Most of the rodent studies published in the literature suggest that transgenerational epigenetic inheritance through gametes can be modulated by environmental factors. Modification and redistribution of chromatin proteins in gametes is one of the major routes for transmitting epigenetic information from parents to the offspring. Our recent studies provide additional specific cues for this concept and help better understand environmental exposure influences fitness and fidelity in the germline. In summary, environmental cues can induce parental alterations and affect the phenotypes of offspring through gametic epigenetic inheritance. Consequently, epigenetic factors and their heritability should be considered during disease risk assessment.
Keywords: environmental factors; epigenetics; genome reprograming; histone modifications; transgenerational inheritance.