Epigenetics refers to information transmitted during cell division other than the DNA sequence per se, and it is the language that distinguishes stem cells from somatic cells, one organ from another, and even identical twins from each other. In contrast to the DNA sequence, the epigenome is relatively susceptible to modification by the environment as well as stochastic perturbations over time, adding to phenotypic diversity in the population. Despite its strong ties to the environment, epigenetics has never been well reconciled to evolutionary thinking, and in fact there is now strong evidence against the transmission of so-called “epi-alleles,” i.e. epigenetic modifications that pass through the germline.
However, genetic variants that regulate stochastic fluctuation of gene expression and phenotypes in the offspring appear to be transmitted as an epigenetic or even Lamarckian trait. Furthermore, even the normal process of cellular differentiation from a single cell to a complex organism is not understood well from a mathematical point of view. There is increasingly strong evidence that stem cells are highly heterogeneous and in fact stochasticity is necessary for pluripotency. This process appears to be tightly regulated through the epigenome in development. Moreover, in these biological contexts, “stochasticity” is hardly synonymous with “noise”, which often refers to variation which obscures a “true signal” (e.g., measurement error) or which is structural, as in physics (e.g., quantum noise). In contrast, “stochastic regulation” refers to purposeful, programmed variation; the fluctuations are random but there is no true signal to mask.
This workshop will serve as a forum for scientists and engineers with an interest in computational biology to explore the role of stochasticity in regulation, development and evolution, and its epigenetic basis. Just as thinking about stochasticity was transformative in physics and in some areas of biology, it promises to fundamentally transform modern genetics and help to explain phase transitions such as differentiation and cancer.