The extensive gene mapping that is part of the human genome project has revealed that much of our inherited disease risk, for example cancer or diabetes, is not readily linked to specific genes. One explanation for this “missing heritability” is that we inherit our parents and grandparents’ experiences as epigenetic (non-genetic) information. This inheritance of acquired traits is an old idea that was discarded with the early 20th century discovery of genetics. However, we now understand that not all heritable information is genetic, and we even know how some epigenetic information is transmitted to progeny (even great-great-grand-progeny). But, crucially, we don’t know what kinds of experiences are heritable, how changes in environmental conditions can affect the durability of heritable memory, or how epigenetic memory is created, stored, and transmitted to progeny.
The proposed research uses the model organism C. elegans to answer these questions with the goals of 1) bringing renewed acceptance of inheritance of acquired traits and 2) to learn how to shorten or extend the period of inheritance, for example to suppress cancer or diabetes promoting acquired traits.