(added note: an alert reader, see comment below, just added this critique of the following work from The Atlantic)
A new study suggests that epigenetic effects—chemical modifications of the human genome that alter gene activity without changing the DNA sequence—may sometimes influence sexual orientation. Researchers studied methylation, the attachment of a methyl group to specific regions of DNA, in 37 pairs of male identical twins who were discordant—meaning that one was gay and the other straight—and 10 pairs who were both gay. Their search yielded five genome regions where the methylation pattern appears very closely linked to sexual orientation. A model that predicted sexual orientation based on these patterns was almost 70% accurate within this group—although that predictive ability does not necessarily apply to the general population.
Researchers thought they were hot on the trail of “gay genes” in 1993, when a team led by geneticist Dean Hamer of the National Cancer Institute reported that one or more genes for homosexuality had to reside on Xq28, a large region on the X chromosome...but some teams were unable to replicate the findings and the actual genes have not been found...Twin studies suggested, moreover, that gene sequences can't be the full explanation. For example, the identical twin of a gay man, despite having the same genome, only has a 20% to 50% chance of being gay himself.
That's why some have suggested that epigenetics—instead of or in addition to traditional genetics—might be involved. During development, chromosomes are subject to chemical changes that don't affect the nucleotide sequence but can turn genes on or off; the best known example is methylation, in which a methyl group is attached to specific DNA regions. Such “epi-marks” can remain in place for a lifetime, but most are erased when eggs and sperm are produced, so that a fetus starts with a blank slate. Recent studies, however, have shown that some marks are passed on to the next generation.
In a 2012 paper, Rice and his colleagues suggested that such unerased epi-marks might cause homosexuality when they are passed on from father to daughter or from mother to son...Such ideas inspired Tuck Ngun, a postdoc in Vilain's lab, to study the methylation patterns at 140,000 regions in the DNA of 37 pairs of male identical twins who were discordant—meaning that one was gay and the other straight—and 10 pairs who were both gay...the team identified five regions in the genome where the methylation pattern appears very closely linked to sexual orientation...Just why identical twins sometimes end up with different methylation patterns isn't clear. If Rice's hypothesis is right, their mothers' epi-marks might have been erased in one son, but not the other; or perhaps neither inherited any marks but one of them picked them up in the womb...In an earlier review, Ngun and Vilain cited evidence that methylation may be determined by subtle differences in the environment each fetus experiences during gestation, such as their exact locations within the womb and how much of the maternal blood supply each receives.