DNA Methylation: The Newest DNA Frontier

With nearly a decade of consumer genetic testing already completed, scientists are finding massive numbers of genetic correlations, genetic diseases, and genetic mechanisms that ultimately control our health and wellbeing. In this article, we will take a look at what DNA methylation is, various conditions and diseases it has been related to, as well as what to expect in the future of the DNA methylation testing industry.

Plus, with raw DNA data from any of the major DNA testing companies, one organization is already offering an alternate version of DNA Methylation testing. But, you’ll need to understand some biology before you get the test.

Back to Biology, A Quick Recap

DNA is an “information molecule” that tells a cell how to construct proteins. Proteins are simply little machines that do work within the cell. Proteins and the DNA they are created from are simply molecules, or strings of atoms bonded together. Like all molecules, they can be modified both physically and functionally by adding on more atoms or taking away atoms.

There are many mechanisms that can modify both DNA molecules and protein molecules. These “mechanisms” are chemical reactions that add or remove little pieces to and from DNA and proteins. While these little pieces are small, they can have a large effect on the function of a molecule.

These additions can essentially mean two things if added to DNA: increased gene expression or decreased gene expression. If a gene is expressed more, it will produce more of the protein it codes for. If it is expressed less or turned off, the cell will not be able to produce that specific protein. Now, on-or-off is not the same as good-and-bad. Most proteins need to be expressed at different levels, at different times, in different cells.

But, proteins can also be altered after they are created. In general, protein modifications also do two basic things: speed the protein up or slow it down. This gives cells two methods of altering function. It can change the creation of protein, or it can change the function of existing proteins. The cell uses many different mechanisms to change DNA or protein function including phosphorylation, acetylation, ubiquitination, and methylation.

What is DNA Methylation?

DNA methylation is a process that attaches small methyl groups to certain parts of the DNA code. A methyl group is simply a carbon atom attached to 3 hydrogen atoms, however, methyl groups on DNA provide a powerful function. A methyl group (-CH3)  can be added to parts of a DNA molecule to stop certain genes from being expressed.

Typically, methyl groups can be thought of like a sealant. After a gene is turned off, the entire gene is coated in tiny methyl groups. These groups stop any proteins from copying the DNA into RNA, the first step in creating a protein. Therefore, methyl groups shut the gene off until they are removed.

With emerging DNA technology, scientists can identify which segments of the genetic code have been methylated, and which have not. Using mass analysis and finding correlations in the data, scientists are starting to understand the importance of methylation. More specifically, they are starting to find patterns between methylation and a number of health conditions.

Why Is DNA Methylation Important?

In the category of DNA methylation, scientists have uncovered a wide variety of correlations between different patterns of DNA methylation and certain diseases. In other words, if scientists find certain genes that have been turned off through methylation they can predict conditions like cancer or certain complex genetic diseases with very good accuracy.

In one review of DNA methylation, the authors note that genes that are normally methylated lose their methyl groups while areas that are normally not methylated get groups attached. This creates cancer tissue that is nothing like the surrounding tissue it started as. That is often why cancers create hard tumors within otherwise healthy tissue.

There are several genetic conditions and neurological conditions that are also related to abnormal DNA methylation patterns. While DNA methylation is not fully understood, aging may be a factor in abnormal methylation. This may be one reason we see increased cancer and disease rates in older individuals.

Fortunately, scientists are currently developing methods to analyze DNA methylation sites and methods to completely override your body’s current DNA methylation patterns.

What Does the Future Hold for DNA Methylation?

With the expansion of the consumer-DNA-testing market, it is only a matter of time before major DNA testing companies start offering some sort of DNA methylation analysis. What this means, potentially, is that you could get a customized report of any methylation patterns that might be significant to your health and may be able to determine the “methylation-age” of your cells.

However, there are major hurdles to overcome before DNA methylation analysis could be a home service. Mainly, DNA methylation is different in every different cell type. It is part of the reason why a muscle cell looks and functions differently than a brain cell.

Therefore, it is unlikely that an analysis of DNA methylation from cheek cells (collected in a spit tube or cheek swab) would yield any significant results to anything other than your cheek cells.

However, DNA methylation analysis will be much more useful in the immediate future as a clinical service. After doctors take a biopsy of a potential tumor or diseased tissue, DNA methylation analysis can tell them exactly which genes are being expressed and repressed. This is already becoming a powerful diagnostic tool.

In fact, researchers have already created the Molecular Neuropathology Organization, which has a page where researchers and doctors can upload their patient’s data to analyze the DNA for methylation. However, the database uses different data than normal DNA testing methods, so you cannot simply upload your raw data from a DNA testing company.

A little further on the horizon lies the ability to actually modify the genes in each cell that are methylated. Potentially, this means that scientists will be able to properly methylate abnormal cancer cells to reverse the disease. With artificial DNA methylation and demethylation, scientists may also be able to stop the symptoms of certain genetic conditions such as Fragile X disorder and other conditions caused in part by DNA methylation patterns.

So, When Can I Get a Methylation Analysis?

While the value of a DNA methylation analysis outside of a specific disease or symptoms has yet to be determined, there is one aspect of DNA methylation that you can have measured for free today!

Part of the process of DNA methylation starts in your genes. Certain genes encode proteins that are directly involved in attaching methyl groups to your DNA. Therefore, simply by analyzing your DNA, scientists can learn some things about how your cells methylate DNA and the proteins they use to complete the process.

One website, GeneticGenie.org, provides a free analysis of genes involved in the methylation process. All you have to do upload your raw DNA data from any of the major DNA testing companies. The site will analyze these genes and show you if you have any genetic variants that could lead to DNA methylation issues, including certain disorders and cancers.

If you would like more information, you can see the Genetic Genie Methylation Analysis Example and Explanation. While the service is free, you should consider donating to this very cool project!

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