Research has shown that when a human body forms, developing cells are given their respective roles: one may be ordered to grow up to be say a future heart cell, another as a liver cell, a third as a neuron, and so on.
Now, researchers at the University of Michigan Health System have found that once those cells reach adulthood, changes to those original marching orders caused by aging, disease and other stressors like smoking can precipitate a kind of identity crisis.
The cells start to forget things like which genes are supposed to be turned on and which turned off. This can lead to significant changes in their ability to function.
While microscopic, these changes can still have profound impacts on living beings.
When this type of mutation was purposefully introduced into the heart muscle cells of mice, the normal functioning of the heart's electrical systems were disturbed, at times leading to dangerous arrhythmia, a new U-M study shows.
The results bring us one step closer to developing treatments for issues associated with aging or chronic diseases in which cells lose their ability to maintain a stable pattern of gene expression, says senior study author Gregory R. Dressler, Ph.D., collegiate professor of pathology research at the U-M Medical School.
"We're excited about this research because it suggests that these mutations can be the cause of disease as well as the result," says lead author Adam B. Stein, M.D., an assistant professor of cardiology at U-M.
The study has been published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation.