The term epigenetics refers to stable patterns of gene expression that are seen during differentiation or X chromosome inactivation and are not dependent on dynamic changes in coding DNA. These gene expression states are encoded in the epigenome — a collection of marks on DNA or on histone tails that are established during embryogenesis. Genome-wide studies in aging cells and tissues have uncovered stochastic DNA methylation drift (gradual increases or decreases at specific loci) that reflects imperfect maintenance of epigenetic marks. Drift creates epigenetic mosaicism in aging stem cells that could potentially restrict their plasticity and worsen phenotypes such as stem cell exhaustion and focal proliferative defects that can lead to cancer.
A model of the effects of the aging epigenome on stem cell function.