As the human genome ages, it changes certain characteristics and may explain why risk of diseases like cancer increase with age, a new study has indicated.
Researchers at Johns Hopkins University found that the so-called epigenetic marks on the sequence of a person's DNA modify over the course of their life and the extent of such changes is similar among family members.
"We're beginning to see that epigenetics stands at the center of modern medicine because epigenetic changes, unlike DNA sequence which is the same in every cell, can occur as a result of dietary and other environmental exposure," said Andrew Feinberg, professor of molecular biology and genetics at the university.
"Epigenetics might very well play a role in diseases like diabetes, autism and cancer," he added in the study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
The team analyzed the DNA sequences from 600 people taking part in the AGES Reykjavik Study, formerly called the Reykjavik Heart Study in Iceland.
The participants supplied DNA samples in 1991, and then again between 2002 and 2005.
Scientists then measured the variations in the levels of methylation, which is the main epigenetic modification, in 111 samples. In about a third of cases, the methylation levels had changed over the years.
"Inappropriate methylation levels can contribute to disease -- too much might turn necessary genes off, too little might turn genes on at the wrong time or in the wrong cell," said Vilmundur Gudnason, professor of cardiovascular genetics at the University of Iceland.
"What we saw was a detectable change over time, which showed us proof of the principle that an individual's epigenetics does change with age," added Daniele Fallin, an associate professor of epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
Such changes could also be hereditary, which might explain why some families are more affected by certain diseases than others.