How Often is the Word ‘Epigenetics’ Used? More Than Ever.

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There has been some discussion as of late concerning the increasing use of the words “epigenetic” and “epigenetics.” For starters, amnestic at Gene Expression wrote an excellent two-part series on epigenetics and memory (part 1, part 2) that included a review of definitions of epigenetics and some discussion concerning use of the word.Earlier this month, Mark Ptashne of the Sloan Kettering Institute in New York wrote an essay in the journal Current Biology on the use of the word “epigenetic.” Link

Over the past few years we have seen an odd change, or extension, in the use of the word ‘epigenetic’ when describing matters of gene regulation in eukaryotes. Although it may generally be that it is not worth arguing over definitions, this is true only insofar as the participants in the discussion know what each other means. I believe the altered use of the term carries baggage from the standard definition that can have misleading implications. Here I wish to probe our use of language in this way, and to show how such a discussion leads to some more general considerations concerning gene regulation.

The essay goes on to describe how certain regulators of gene expression now commonly referred to as “epigenetic modifications” are perhaps improperly labelled because these changes are not heritable.I went ahead and did a review of the publications listed at PubMed tha contain the word “epigenetics” from 2000 to 2006. Here are the results:Epigenetics Publications by YearThe results show that there is clearly a significant increase in use of the word “epigenetics” in scientific publications over the past 7 years. Here are a few factors that I believe are the most likely contributors in an increase in use of the word, although I suspect that long-time researchers within the field may have a better grasp of other trends that have also contributed to its increasing popularity.

  • Advances in technologies to study epigenetic mechanisms.There have been considerable advances in technology that allow for the study of the influence that epigenetics has on many different areas of research. This is a great positive feedback loop: as better technology becomes available, more research is done, which drives development of better tools for researchers to use.
  • New insights into the link between epigenetics and cancer. Epigenetics (i.e. DNA methylation) has offered new hope for understanding how cancer develops and finding new ways to detect and diagnose it.
  • Surprising discoveries bring new researchers into the field. Some researchers stumbled into epigenetics research when their own, unrelated research led them down this path. Again, advances in technology to study epigenetics have largely made this possible.

The increase in the popularity of epigenetics has emerged earlier this year in the form of two high impact journals, Cell and Nature Reviews Genetics, publishing special editions solely on new topics in the epigenetics field. And last year an entire textbook on epigenetics was published by Cold Spring Harbor Press, indicating that the field has grown to a level that warrants such special attention.It’s also important to note that stem cell researchers are increasingly becoming interested in how epigenetics may hold the key for critical advances in their understanding of these unique cell types. And epigenetics is now clearly important in improving the efficiency of cloning (somatic cell nuclear transfer), which will be tremendously beneficial to a wide spectrum of researchers and most importantly, to public health.With all of these high profile and highly funded areas becoming closely associated with epigenetics, is it any surprise that more researchers are finding ways to include their focus as part of “epigenetics”?

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2 Responses to “How Often is the Word ‘Epigenetics’ Used? More Than Ever.”

  1. Siredon Says:

    Couldn’t some of the increase be because more researchers are hearing of the concept and applying it in their discussions? I did not know what epigenetics was until last year, and I applied it in my thesis. This was not a thesis based on molecular studies, but rather it was concerned with systematics and phenotype in a rapidly changing clade.

  2. Trevor Says:

    That’s an interesting point, and one that I have actually seen some evidence of. I have seen evidence of researchers invoking “epigenetics” when postulating on what may be happening in their specific system, even though they have no data or inclination that anything related to epigenetics is occurring. Will epigenetics become an easy fall-back “answer” for geneticists when they don’t understand how a disease occurs by searching for classical genetic causes? I would hope not — epigenetics shouldn’t overshadow classical genetics, it should enhance and support it.