Epigenetics is an emerging scientific field, shedding light on the interactions between nature and nurture. Hosted by Richard Holloway, Nessa Carey, author of The Epigenetic Revolution partook in discussion with Paul Shiels from Glasgow University, and Steven Yearley, director of the ESRC Genomics Policy & Research Forum. The result was a series of arresting insights on the interplay between life science and society.
Carey offered an accessible breakdown of the concepts involved. Traditionally we’re taught heritable information is passed down from parent to child through eggs and sperm. We also learn the effects of the environment – such as diet, exercise and pathogens – are not passed down. But we may have to relinquish this dogma: epigeneticists posit these environmental effects can be inherited, and there is a growing body of evidence to support this.
What’s perhaps most interesting about these transmissions is they’re not passed through the genes, but are in fact a knock-on effect of other mechanisms. Carey gave histones, proteins which are bound with our DNA, as an example. Environmental factors such as stress or alcohol intake can result in chemical modifications to our histones, in turn affecting the DNA beside them. The sequence itself doesn’t change, but the activity of the genes can.
While some background science was necessary, this didn’t dominate the event – the implications for society played an equal role. Shiels noted epigenetics may help account for the growing gap in life expectancy between Glasgow’s more affluent and deprived areas – an issue which cannot be fully explained by lifestyle. Carey warned against medicalisation, suggesting the money and time involved might be better spent tackling the social problems themselves.
Speakers and audience alike brought warmth, wit and curiosity to these ideas. There was no reduction of life, the universe and everything to epigenetics, but instead, the recognition of these mechanisms as part of a much bigger picture. Hopefully epigenetics will continue to be scrutinised with scientific rigour. For now, it’s heartening to see the icy gap between nature and nurture become fertile ground for discussion.