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It’s in the Genes Researchers Probe Alcohol’s Effect on Epigenetics As scientists gain a better understanding of the human genome, one rapidly emerging area of research is the effect of alcohol on epigenetics – external modifications to DNA that turn genes “on” or “off.” Epigenetic changes alter the physical structure of DNA. One example of an epigenetic change is DNA methylation — the addition of a methyl group, or a “chemical cap,” to part of the DNA molecule, which prevents certain genes from being expressed. A recent article in the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism’s Alcohol Alert reports on a growing body of research showing how alcohol’s influence on epigenetics may be associated with an array of illnesses and disorders. These include fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD), cancer, liver disease and other gastrointestinal disorders, brain development, the body’s internal clock, and immune function. Researchers and clinicians are beginning to explore therapies that might be developed to target the changes occurring through epigenetics.

How alcohol affects epigenetics Alcohol consumption leads to chemical changes within the body that can affect all the epigenetic mechanisms. For one, excessive alcohol consumption interferes with the body’s ability to process and access a chemical called folate. Folate is critical for methylation, a biochemical process that attaches a methyl group to a specific spot on DNA. DNA methylation acts to lock genes in the “off ” position. Chronic alcohol consumption leads to lower-than-normal methylation, or “hypomethylation.” Research also finds that alcohol metabolism leads to an increase in a substance called NADH, which is a byproduct of alcohol metabolism, and through production of reactive

oxygen species (ROS), which are chemically reactive molecules that at high levels can damage cells. Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders Women who drink during pregnancy put their developing fetuses at serious risk for a range of conditions collectively known as FASD. In exploring how epigenetics contributes to FASD, researchers have also begun to investigate two complex enzymes that play a crucial role in cell differentiation during fetal development. One, called polycomb protein, remodels chromatin to turn genes off; the other, called trithorax protein, remodels chromatin to turn genes on. Research suggests that exposure to alcohol may

Researchers and clinicians are beginning to explore therapies that might be developed to target the changes occurring through epigenetics due to alcohol use.

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