Newly Discovered Genes Shed Light on Environmental Factors Influencing MS Development

Four genes found linked to epigenetic mechanisms that contribute to multiple sclerosis.

Four new risk genes altered in multiple sclerosis (MS) patients were identified in a recent study published in Science Advances.

The study included nearly 5000 patients, and a sample of more than 10,000 people, to examine a single population of genetically homogenous German patients in order to identify risk genes that were not discovered in international studies. Epigenetic signals are programmed by different environmental factors through a person’s life, and are critical for regulating which genes (about 20,000) inside a cell get activated.

During the study, researchers identified a gene called SHMT1 that plays a key role in DNA methylation, which is one of the most important epigenetic regulatory mechanisms.

“All 4 genes are important for regulatory processes within immune cells,” said researcher Bernhard Hemmer. “Interestingly, they are linked to epigenetic mechanisms. These are bookmarks in the genome that are placed by environmental influences and control the expression of genes.”

The findings furthered the knowledge on the extent genetic influences play in MS development. The hereditary component is limited in developing MS, so environmental factors pay a strong contribution to the disease, the study concluded.

“They can influence the activity of MS-relevant genes via epigenetic mechanisms,” said researcher Bertram Müller-Myhsok. “We have now discovered indicators for regulation of methylation being a potential interface where genetic and environmental MS risk factors interact.”