Researchers discover a network of genes that control when puberty begins

Confocal microscopy image of the medial basal hypothalamus
Confocal microscopy image of the medial basal hypothalamus

Researchers at OHSU and the University of Pittsburgh have identified members of an elaborate superfamily of genes that regulate the timing of puberty in highly evolved nonhuman primates.

The Zinc finger, or ZNF, gene family comprises approximately 800 individual genes. A handful of genes in this network serve as a “neurobiological brake” that delay the activation of hypothalamic genes responsible for launching puberty until the end of childhood, thereby preventing the premature awakening of the process. The researchers’ insights better position scientists to decipher whether environmental factors push the start of puberty to younger ages.

ZNFs exert their inhibitory effect by setting in motion mechanisms that modify gene activity without changing the sequence of DNA. Because of this, the ZNFs are considered to act “epigenetically;” conveying to genes information from the environment without changing the genetic code itself.

The team was led by Alejandro Lomniczi, Ph.D., assistant scientist at the ONPRC. Their paper, “Epigenetic regulation of puberty via Zinc-finger protein-mediated transcriptional repression,” was published this week in the journal Nature Communications.