Epigenetics is a key mechanism regulating the expression of genes. There are three main and interrelated mechanisms: DNA methylation, post-translational modification of histone proteins and non-coding RNA. Gene activation is generally associated with lower levels of DNA methylation in promoters and with distinct histone marks such as acetylation of amino acids in histones. Unlike the genetic code, the epigenome is altered by endogenous (e.g. hormonal) and environmental (e.g. diet, exercise) factors and changes with age. Recent evidence implicates epigenetic mechanisms in the pathogenesis of common rheumatic disease, including RA, OA, SLE and scleroderma. Epigenetic drift has been implicated in age-related changes in the immune system that result in the development of a pro-inflammatory status termed inflammageing, potentially increasing the risk of age-related conditions such as polymyalgia rheumatica. Therapeutic targeting of the epigenome has shown promise in animal models of rheumatic diseases. Rapid advances in computational biology and DNA sequencing technology will lead to a more comprehensive understanding of the roles of epigenetics in the pathogenesis of common rheumatic diseases.
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