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Epigenetics. © INRA, INRA

Livestock epigenetics: laying the foundation for future benefits

By Pascale Mollier, translated by Jessica Pearce
Updated on 03/25/2019
Published on 05/20/2014

Each living organism contains both a genome AND an epigenome. But what is the epigenome? This report will help answer this question and discuss recent discoveries by INRA scientists related to the topic of livestock epigenetics.

Can the food shortages, diseases, and stresses experienced by grandparents affect what happens to their grandchildren? Are plants produced by vegetative propagation and animals produced by cloning identical to their “progenitors”? Do they behave in the same way?

These questions and others are currently being studied thanks to epigenetics. Modifications to the epigenome essentially serve to add extra information to the genome. This information mediates gene expression and plays a crucial role in cell differentiation and individual development. Research is beginning to show that certain environmental factors (e.g., stress, nutrition, or behavioral interactions) can modify the epigenome, but cases in which these modifications are passed on to subsequent generations (epigenetic inheritance) remain extremely rare.

Epigenetics is a burgeoning field of study. It was first used in the world of plant sciences and has since expanded into the realm of animal sciences. Above all, researchers are interested in understanding the mechanisms underlying epigenome modifications.

Hervé Vaucheret (1), a plant biology expert, remarks: “I don’t think that, at present, we can really hope to use epigenetics to improve plant species through artificial selection. We can describe what is going on, answer questions regarding the underlying mechanisms, and identify tags. Like when we began to identify genetic markers, we will be able to characterize epigenetic tags that are associated with traits of agricultural interest and understand why certain plants are better adapted to some environments than to others. I think that is what people expect from scientists. They feel scientists should help them understand what is going on, rather than necessarily fomenting the desire for new products.”  

In animal husbandry, it is hard to imagine that epigenetic research will yield immediate benefits. However, Hélène Jammes (2), an animal development expert, comments: “By understanding epigenetic processes, we can understand how the environment affects animal performance. Given climate change and global competitiveness in the livestock sector, changes in animal husbandry practices can have long-term consequences. All of this needs to be evaluated. It is therefore important to do as much as possible to understand the mechanisms at play. We can then use the information obtained to change how we raise livestock so as to optimize gene expression and thus the inherent potential of animal species.”  

This report describes recent discoveries by INRA scientists in the field of livestock epigenetics.

(1) Hervé Vaucheret is interested in epigenetic mechanisms and, in particular, the role played by small RNA molecules in transgenetic plants. He has received several awards for his work, including the CNRS Silver Medal in 2005. See his profile for more information.

(2) Hélène Jammes studies the epigenetic signatures involved in determining phenotypes. She was one of 17 INRA researchers recognized in 2012 by the Académie d’Agriculture de France; she received the award for her work on applied epigenetics in animals. See this interview for more information.

Scientific contact(s):

Associated Division(s):
Animal Physiology and Livestock Systems
Associated Centre(s):
Associated Unit(s):
UMR1198 BDR Joint Research Unit for Developmental Biology and Reproduction