An epigenetic trait is a stably heritable phenotype resulting from changes in a chromosome without alterations in the DNA sequence. Such changes are mediated by chemical modifications to chromatin on both DNA and DNA-associated histones. Post-translational covalent modifications to the flexible NH2 terminus (tail) of histones include methylation, acetylation, phosphorylation and ubiquitylation, and these are associated with the structural organization of chromatin and its transcriptional status. However, not all histone modifications are truly epigenetic, as very few satisfy the heritable part of the definition. To establish and mediate epigenetic memory, such modifications must be transmitted during DNA replication. Methylation of cytosine in CpG dinucleotides (often referred to as DNA methylation) also contributes to the epigenetic status of a gene locus. When this occurs in a CpG island adjacent to a transcription initiation site, it is generally associated with repression or silencing of transcription. Histone modification, DNA methylation and the resulting reorganisation of chromatin are closely interlinked enzyme-driven processes that determine the transcriptional status of genes, gene clusters and noncoding RNAs such as micro (mi)RNAs. Most of the epigenetic markers mentioned above are associated with transcriptional repression. Multiple additional covalent modifications to histones exist in parallel to these, resulting in a complex and context-influenced ‘histone code’ that dictates transcriptional state.
One of the key questions in the study of mammalian gene regulation is how epigenetic methylation patterns on histones and DNA are initiated and established. These stable, heritable, covalent modifications are largely associated with the repression or silencing of gene transcription, and when deregulated can be involved in the development of human diseases such as cancer. This article reviews examples of viruses and bacteria known or thought to induce epigenetic changes in host cells, and how this might contribute to disease. The heritable nature of these processes in gene regulation suggests that they could play important roles in chronic diseases associated with microbial persistence; they might also explain so-called ‘hit-and-run’ phenomena in infectious disease pathogenesis.