May 6, 2013, by Brigitte Nerlich

Epigenetics: Switching the power (and responsibility) from genes to us?

We have always known that we are who we are because of our ancestors. We also know in ever more detail that we are who we are because of our genes.  Since 1953 we know the structure of the genes that are passed down from generation to generation and since 2003 we know the structure of the whole human genome. We can read the letters (A, G, C, T) and chapters (chromosomes) and even the whole book of life (genome). We hoped that we had got to the bottom of what makes us human, at least in term of genetics. But, as Feynman said in 1959 with relation to physics: ‘There is plenty of room at the bottom’. And this is where epigenetics comes in, the study of biochemical phenomena beyond the gene and the genome.

Post-it notes in the book of life

In 2003 we not only began to survey the whole human genome and study it in ever more detail, we also started to examine the ‘epigenome’. It turns out that there is genetic information passed down from generation to generation that is encoded ‘beyond’ the gene and the gene sequence, that is indeed ‘epi’-genetic. This information is not written in the letters that make up the book of life, but attached to them like post-it notes. These are, as far as I understand it, molecular imprints of traces of events, experiences, environmental impacts that have happened to organisms, to human beings, as they walk through life. They are molecular records or memories of events and circumstances that impacted on their lives. They are also something like reminders to future offspring to respond to certain events, environments, experiences in certain molecular ways. This means that while living our lives, we annotate the book of life and these annotations get passed down to future generations. Or, to use another metaphor: “Epigenetics is the coffee stain on the page that gets copied when you photocopy the book, and when someone photocopies your copy.” (Boyle, 2011)

Destiny and power

We always knew and worried that genes might determine our lives, our destiny, our fate, but it now seems that we may also be able to determine the fate of our genes by the way we live. Molecular mechanisms (such as DNA methylation and histone modification) studied by epigenetics seem to turn the tables on the relation between biology and society, genetics and politics. In the past we might have been worried about the ‘power of the gene’. We now may have to worry about the ‘power of the environment’ (and with it of politicians and what one may call social engineers who structure and shape the environment).

We have, of course, always known that we (also) are who we are because of the environment we live in. But we did not know that we are genetically who we are because of environments that our ancestors lived in.

This story of epigenetics, of genes and environments, of past and future, of nature and nurture is, to a large extent still quite speculative, but it is increasingly being debated not only in science but also in society, and in particular in political and social policy circles. There are hopes and fears that we now have the power not only to change environments in order to improve people’s lives, a power we always had, but that we can do so ‘scientifically’ by fine-tuning various bio-chemical mechanisms. These issues are beginning to be discussed by social scientists, bioethicists and philosophers who may now have not only the power to critique, say, the possible effects of ‘genetic determinism’ on individuals and society, but who can perhaps intervene in more direct ways in shaping the future of society. Some of the challenges posed to society by epigenetics have been explored in a symposium organised by the ESRC in 2012 and the report is worth reading in order to get a better understanding of the science of epigenetics.  (You can also watch this video by Hank Green!)

Hope and fear, blame and responsibility

For me, the most interesting issues emerging around epigenetics and society are new ways of thinking about responsibility and blame. Epigenetics seems to show that what we do now (whether willingly in terms of diet or smoking, or unwillingly in terms of living in harsh or violent social conditions) may influence not only our lives and our health, but also the lives and health of our children and perhaps our children’s children. We also have to find new ways of thinking about blame. Blaming our parents for giving us the wrong genes is no longer the only way to deflect blame for our behaviour or our state of health (obesity etc); we can now also blame our parents’ parents (and the politicians who ruled/ruined their and our lives), starting a whole intergenerational blame-game.

In the press, where epigenetics is increasingly discussed, we find metaphors such as ‘a nuclear time bomb in our genes’, ‘grandma’s curse’, ‘womb doom’ ‘your father’s sins’, and so on.  And as for blaming ourselves, we can now even wear a T-shirt that says ‘Blame it on my epigenetics’. Alongside this abdication of control to a new form of genetics, we also find discussion around control. This in turn is mainly framed through the metaphor of the epigenetic (light) switch which can be used not only to switch on and off certain genes, but may allow us to control the future. But the question is: who is the agent of our (children’s) destiny? You me, scientists, politicians, bioethicists, the epigenome?

Epigenetics and the dangers of hype

Bloggers (and some social scientists too) are beginning to keep an eye on developments in epigenetics, especially some emerging hype visible on web pages devoted to diet, well-being, alternative medicine and so on, but also visible in some social policy circles. We have learned many lessons about how quickly scientific advances in, say, cloning, stem cell research or neuroscience can be overhyped (both positively and negatively, in terms of h0pes and fears). While studying epigenetics from a social science perspective, we should try not to contribute to this emerging hype. While observing and watching over the emerging science, we should also pay attention to how its results are transformed (and perhaps overinterpreted) in various societal and political projects.  There is lots to be done!

Added 22 May, 2013: First sociological article on epigenetics by Landecker and Panofsky published 15 May, 2013

Added 31 May, 2013: Margaret Lock on the lure of the epigenome

Added 10 June, 2013: Nautilus magazine article on genome in turmoil

Added 14 August, 2014: Important article published in Nature: Don’t blame the mothers!

Added 9 May, 2015: Nice overview – although I object to the phrase paradigm shift!


Posted in epigenetics