Philadelphia, PA, February 14, 2013 The 18th century natural philosopher Jean-Baptiste Lamarck proposed that the necks of giraffes lengthened as a consequence of the cumulative effort, across generations, to reach leaves just out of their grasp. This view of evolution was largely abandoned with the advent of modern genetic theories to explain the transmission of most important traits and many medical illnesses across generations.
However, there has long been the impression that major life events, like psychological traumas, not only have effects on individuals who directly experience these events, but also have effects on their children. For example, cross-generational effects have been well-documented in the children of Nazi death camp survivors. Similar issues have been reported in the context of mood disorders and addiction. Until recently, these trans-generational effects were attributed to changes in the way that parents treated their children or the child's reaction to learning about the parent's history.
In the most recent issue of Biological Psychiatry, Swiss researchers from the University of Zurich and Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, led by Dr. Isabelle Mansuy, discuss how the emergence of the field of epigenetics has introduced a new component to this discussion the trans-generational transmission of changes in the regulation of gene expression.
"The question of the inheritance of acquired traits has puzzled biologists and clinicians for decades. Although it has been consistently observed as early as in the 18th century, the time has now come that sufficiently strong and convincing evidence has accumulated to firmly accept it," said Mansuy.
The genetic transmission of traits reflects alterations in genetic structure, i.e., the base pairs that form DNA. Epigenetics, on the other hand, involves cellular processes that do not alter the structure of DNA. Instead, epigenetic mechanisms, including the met
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