We are more than the sum of our genes

Epigenetics between the generations : we inherit more than just genes

image of Germ line–inherited H3K27me3

Epigenetic mechanisms modulated by environmental cues such as diet, disease or our lifestyle take a major role in regulating the DNA by switching genes on and off. It has been long debated if epigenetic modifications accumulated throughout the entire life can cross the border of generations and be inherited to children or even grand children. Now researchers from the Max Planck Institute of Immunobiology and Epigenetics in Freiburg show robust evidence that not only the inherited DNA itself but also the inherited epigenetic instructions contribute in regulating gene expression in the offspring. Moreover, the new insights by the Lab of Nicola Iovino describe for the first time biological consequences of this inherited information. The study proves that mother’s epigenetic memory is essential for the development and survival of the new generation.


Gametes carry parental genetic material to the next generation. Stress-induced epigenetic changes in the germ line can be inherited and can have a profound impact on offspring development. However, the molecular mechanisms and consequences of transgenerational epigenetic inheritance are poorly understood. We found that Drosophila oocytes transmit the repressive histone mark H3K27me3 to their offspring. Maternal contribution of the histone methyltransferase Enhancer of zeste, the enzymatic component of Polycomb repressive complex 2, is required for active propagation of H3K27me3 during early embryogenesis. H3K27me3 in the early embryo prevents aberrant accumulation of the active histone mark H3K27ac at regulatory regions and precocious activation of lineage-specific genes at zygotic genome activation. Disruption of the germ line–inherited Polycomb epigenetic memory causes embryonic lethality that cannot be rescued by late zygotic reestablishment of H3K27me3. Thus, maternally inherited H3K27me3, propagated in the early embryo, regulates the activation of enhancers and lineage-specific genes during development.

  • Epigenetics between the generations : researchers prove that we inherit more than just genes, Max-Planck-Gesellschaft, July 13, 2017.
  • Germ line–inherited H3K27me3 restricts enhancer function during maternal-to-zygotic transition, sciencemag, DOI: 10.1126/science.aam5339, 14 Jul 2017.
  • Featured image © MPI of Immunobiology a. Epigenetics / F. ZenkEgg-cell of a female fruit fly with the egg cell in which H3K27me3 was made visible through green staining. This cell, together with the sperm, will contribute to the formation of the next generation of flies. In the upper right corner, a maternal and paternal pre-nucleus are depicted before their fusion during fertilization. The green colouration of H3K27me3 appears exclusively in the maternal pre-nucleus, indicating that their epigenetic instructions are inherited into the next generation.

2 thoughts on “We are more than the sum of our genes”

  1. The beauty of this discovery is that, through your own behaviour and lifestyle you will affect your descendants, for better or for worse. You can’t expect to have healthy and successful offspring if you don’t take responsability for your own health and lifestyle. The will to improve the world you live in and your own life not only benefits the community in a metaphysical and philantropical way but it physically improves you and your future generations. I remember a beautifully explained video about epigenetics from the University of Oslo which supports this view on life. https://youtu.be/k50yMwEOWGU

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