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Epigenetics is a research area that has sparked great interest over the last few years, mainly because of the important relationship between epigenetic alterations and disease development, but also because it plays a crucial role during cell specialization.

Although all of the cells in our body have the same genetic information, each cell can specialize and be different from the others. To achieve this, there exists a control in the expression of genes and in the access to the information found in the genome. This control is governed by the characteristics of the structure of and modifications in DNA compaction. Thus, all these modifications, or epigenome, are responsible for the regulation of gene expression, and give rise to a new reading of the genome. Unraveling this new code is the main objective of the Consolider Epigenetics project, as it will enable us to understand the mechanisms through which specific diseases, like leukemia, cancer and multiple sclerosis, are developed.

The final meeting of the Consolider Epigenetics project, which received support from the Ministry of Science and Innovation, was held in Barcelona on 12 and 13 May, collecting the results obtained by the participating groups over the last four years, showing the scientific advisory committee and the scientific community —more than 200 participants— the latest discoveries in this field and their implications for biomedical research, and laying the groundwork for new research projects.

“The genetics and molecular biology of the next 20 years will be centered on epigenetics,” affirms Dr. Miguel Beato, organizer of the meeting and director of the Center for Genomic Regulation (CRG) in Barcelona. “There still remains much technology to develop in this field and, in the coming years, we will see what the companies and research groups do about it,” he stresses.

The Consolider Epigenetics project as brought together the top Spanish research groups working in the field. Participating laboratories are those of Miguel Beato, Luciano Di Croce and Thomas Graf from the CRG; Marian Martínez Balbás from the Molecular Biology Institute of Barcelona (IBMB-CSIC); Fernando Azorín from the Institute of Biomedical Research and the IBMB-CSIC; Manel Esteller from the Bellvitge Institute of Biomedical Research (IDIBELL) and Miguel Ángel Peinado from the Institute of Predictive and Personalized Medicine of Cancer (IMPPC), all located in Barcelona; as well as those of Gerardo López-Rodas from the University of Valencia and José Carlos Reyes from the Andalusian Molecular Biology and Regenerative Medicine Center -CSIC in Seville.

“Catalonia and Spain are playing an important role in European epigenetic research. It's a shame that this project is to be discontinued and that the entire Consolider aid program will disappear. It would be reasonable that the projects which have been successful, like ours, could be assessed for continuation”, says Miguel Beato.

The main results obtained revolve around the following areas:

  • Remodeling of chromatin and the histone code: methods have been developed to predict and analyze the way in which DNA is compacted into chromatin and to study the influence of DNA and histone modification on gene expression.
  • Changes in chromatin during cell proliferation, differentiation and transformation: a study was undertaken into how these changes are carried out and how they affect cell specialization and proliferation processes as well as their relationship with diseases like leukemia, breast cancer and multiple sclerosis. 
  • Study of microRNA and RNAi-mediated gene silencing: a relationship was established between microRNA (tiny fragments of RNA) and DNA methylation in cancerous cells. 
  • Epigenetics of cancer: the expression of genes and DNA methylation was analyzed at a genomic level in samples of breast cancer, prostate cancer and other tissues in order to discover target genes and biomarkers. 
  • Use of new tools in epigenetics: the application of new sequencing technologies for the study of epigenetics and the development of new protocols and arrays (DNA chips) to study DNA methylation.

All of this information has been collected in nearly 150 scientific papers published in top-notch journals, six of them appearing on the covers of Cell Stem Cell, Cancer Cell, Epigenetics, Nature Structural and Molecular Biology, Cell Cycle and Cancer Research.

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