Commission launches the Epigenome NoE for the post-genomic era
Ever since the discoveries of figures such as Gregor Mendel and Theodore Boveri, Europe has been a world leader in genetic and chromosome research, leading to major advances in our understanding of the fundamental principles of heredity.
Having recently completed the sequencing of a number of genomes of scientific interest, including the human genome, it has become clear that the more complex an organism, the bigger its genome. However, it is also evident that increased bio-complexity is not reflected by an equivalent increase in the number of protein coding genes in each genome, with, for example, 15,000 in a fly compared with only 40,000 in a human.
This suggests that the DNA sequence itself is not the only source of heritable information, and that mechanisms other than DNA sequence information have been adopted during evolution. The discovery of epigenetic mechanisms that considerably extend the information potential of the genetic code mean that we are more than the sum of our genes, opening up a post-genomic era that will define more clearly the molecular basis of our identity.
To ensure that Europe remains at the leading edge in this field, the European Commission, through its Sixth Framework Programme (FP6), has opted to finance a new Network of Excellence (NoE) called 'The Epigenome'. The network aims to provide a coherent platform for Europe's epigenetic research community over the next five years.
The Epigenome brings together 25 of Europe's leading research institutes in this field under the coordination of Professor Thomas Jenuwein from the Research Institute for Molecular Pathology in Vienna, Austria. Professor Jenuwein explains that while epigenetic changes are independent of the genetic code, they can nevertheless be passed on to offspring: 'There may even be a epigenetic code that can determine patterns of gene expression over many cell generations.'
The 'virtual institute' created through the NoE will have three main objectives: to devise a joint research programme to advance understanding of epigenetic mechanisms, to integrate 22 of Europe's most promising newly established research teams into the initiative (the NET programme), and to establish an interactive website to transfer knowledge to the scientific community and the general public.
Through its NET programme, the Epigenome network will progressively expand to incorporate additional research teams during its five years of EU funding, with 25 per cent of the NoE's total funding being used to affiliate newly established research teams for a period of three years. In the face of competition from established teams, young scientists regularly face problems in securing research funding, explains Professor Jenuwein. 'With the NET programme we reversed the system - established teams will make funds available for the most outstanding young colleagues in Europe,' he said.
In addition, funds will provide all NoE members with access to infrastructures designed to enable them to fully exploit the results of their research, and to organise a biennial conference on epigenetics and various other public events. However, the NoE members are fully aware that the 12.5 million euro of EU funding is a founding instrument, and that additional resources will have to be secured in order to extend the initiative beyond the initial 2009 lifetime.
Yet the participants are convinced that The Epigenome is a timely initiative for shaping an emerging and highly dynamic research area. They argue that the implications of epigenetic research for human biology and health, including cancer and ageing, are far-reaching, and as well as improving understanding of our own molecular identities, this knowledge will become a foundation for legal, political and socio-economic decision making in the future.
For further information, please consult the following web address:
Data Source Provider: European Commission
Document Reference: Based on a presentation of The Epigenome Network of Excellence
Subject Index: Biotechnology; Coordination, Cooperation; Life Sciences; Medicine, Health; Scientific Research