Geneticists love the tiny worm Caenorhabditis elegans for its simplicity and the way it replicates the functions of more complex and intractable creatures. It has played a key role in much fundamental biological research in the last 50 years.
It was the first multicellular organism to have its whole genome sequenced, the first to have the full wiring of its nervous system (or connectome) mapped, and the full developmental path of every cell in its body is known.
Now researchers at the Centre for Genomic Regulation in Barcelona, Spain, and colleagues have used C. elegans to show that impairments to the DNA replication process can cause epigenetic changes – alterations in the way that certain genes are expressed in the body – that can be passed on to as many as five generations of descendants.
Even when the descendants did not themselves carry the mutation that caused faulty DNA replication, they nonetheless carried the changes in gene expression.
The research is an important new clue in the study of how epigenetic changes are inherited, an area which is still poorly understood.