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The concept of chromatin as a complex of nucleic acid and proteins in the cell nucleus was developed by cytologists and biochemists in the late 19th century. It was the starting point for biochemical research on DNA and nuclear proteins. Interest in chromatin declined rapidly at the beginning of the 20th century, but a few decades later a new focus on chromatin emerged, which was not only related to its structure, but also to its function in gene regulatory processes in the development of higher organisms. Since the late 20th century, research on chromatin modifications as well as DNA methylation that emerged in the 1970s have also been conducted under the label epigenetics, a term originally introduced for the complex processes between genotype and phenotype during development. These processes - in particular gene regulation - were subsequently scrutinized by molecular biologists.
Research termed epigenetics remained marginal until the end of the 20th century but experienced a rapid rise when heritability was added to its definition. This was accompanied by an increasing diversity in researchers' understanding and definitions of epigenetics. Epigenetics now includes research on histone and DNA-modifying enzymes, nucleosome remodelers, histone chaperones, chromatin-binding proteins to facilitate transcription factor and polymerase action, and the role of long non-coding RNA and small interfering RNA in transcriptional regulation.
This article highlights the major phases of chromatin and epigenetics research until the present time and illuminates how different scientific contexts changed the relevance and meaning of chromatin from the 19th century. The paper also points to misconceptions and media hype about epigenetics, for example unsupported claims about transgenerational inheritance in humans or questioning of the basic biological principles of gene regulation based on specific regulatory sequences of the genome.
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