The £20 million project will examine and compare the epigenetic signatures of 5,000 twins; these are heritable patterns of DNA modification other than changes to the DNA coding sequence, in this instance ‘CpG islands’ of methylation, chemical modifications to the DNA molecule backbone. These may arise in response to environmental (external) factors, but can then be passed on to subsequent generations, and are thought to potentially influence health outcomes.
The researchers will be examining differences in epigenetic patterning between twin pairs – who share identical DNA sequences – and relate this information to data on different medical traits, in an attempt to identify epigenetic factors that may account for the difference between twins in terms of diseases they develop. The project will focus initially on obesity, diabetes, allergies, heart disease, osteoporosis and longevity; it is the largest epigenetic study of this kind to date.
Director of TwinsUK Professor Tim Spector commented: ‘‘Finding the crucial differences between twins will lead us to the key genes that are being turned on and off, and so to the cause of disease, with great potential to find key targets for drug treatments”, whilst BGI Executive Director Professor Jun Wang added: “We hope to unlock many secrets about human genetics that we don’t currently understand, and to accelerate research and applications in human healthcare” (see press release).