December 4, 2019, by Brigitte Nerlich
The Power of Plasticity: Epigenetics in Science Fiction
One of the fascinating things about epigenetics is how quickly some of the public perceptions of the field have raced far beyond the actual state of the science. I’ve seen and heard countless online and real life discussions in which epigenetics is already assumed to play an active role in intergenerational inheritance (especially of trauma), plasticity. sexual orientation and gender identity, and myriad physical and mental health conditions.
Another common theme is the belief that new knowledge of epigenetics allows us to overcome genetics in general, and genetic predispositions to disease in particular, often via changes to diet, exercise, and other lifestyle interventions. (In many cases, this trope is spread by people selling expensive “epigenetic” supplements, sometimes in combination with direct-to-consumer epigenetic tests that supposedly identify deficiencies). Scientists are indeed working on aspects of all of these questions, but most of the findings to date are preliminary and correlative.
Anticipatory discourse analysis
Frustrating? Yes, sometimes – but always an excellent reminder of the need for scientists to be aware of common misunderstandings of this kind, and to be cautious when communicating our research findings to non-technical audiences. This type of premature discourse can also help those of us who are working to translate epigenetics for knowledge users downstream of research labs. For example, if the scientific evidence does eventually develop to the point of showing support for a causal role for epigenetics in intergenerational trauma, then an analysis of the current discourse on this topic will help us to analyse and predict the potential ramifications.
While there’s no lack of examples of premature discussion of epigenetics in the real world, we can find additional material in the realm of science fiction. Here, speculation is the whole point, and epigenetics provides some satisfyingly meaty material, such as non-genetic inheritance of the effects of temporary environmental exposures, and individual and species plasticity in response to external stimuli. I recently read two novels that make good use of the latter theme – The Power by Naomi Alderman, and Seveneves by Neal Stephenson.
Note: there are some (mostly) minor spoilers in the rest of the post (the one major spoiler is marked as such), but nothing that should spoil your enjoyment of either book. Unless you’re only reading them to see what they have to say about epigenetics, of course.
Epigenetics in science fiction
The Power – of epigenetic modifications
The Power explores a world in which young women start to gain the ability to deliver powerful electric shocks. The story follows several different characters as society starts to adapt to this new reality, from riots in Saudi Arabia to religious cults in the United States and the foundation of a new country in the Balkans by liberated victims of human trafficking, all the way to a dystopian far future with familiar, yet inverted, power structures.
This is an interesting case in that it’s not 100% clear whether the power is supposed to be caused by epigenetics, genetics, or both. In the following quotes, I’ve added bold text for parts that appear to suggest an epigenetic origin, and underlined the parts that lean towards genetics. Bold underlined text is ambiguous.
“a multinational group of scientists is certain now that the power is caused by an environmental build-up of nerve agent that was released during the Second World War. It’s changed the human genome. All girls born from now on will have the power – all of them.”
(I’ve seen people talk about epigenetic modifications “changing the genome” in other contexts, hence the ambiguous formatting for this phrase, which I would personally only use if I was describing changes to the actual DNA sequence. The fact that all women will now have the same power is technically also ambiguous, but a mutagenic environmental toxin wouldn’t be expected to induce exactly the same DNA sequence change in every single person exposed to it, so I’m going with epigenetics here).
“Although Guardian Angel [the causative agent] had been forgotten after the Second World War, it continued to concentrate and magnify its potency in the human body. Research has now established it as the undoubted trigger, once certain concentrations had been reached, for the development of the electrostatic power in women.
Any woman who was seven years old or younger during the Second World War may have skein buds on the points of her collarbones – although not all do; it will depend on what dose of Guardian Angel was received in early childhood, and on other genetic factors. These buds can be “activated” by a controlled burst of electrostatic power by a younger woman. […] It is theorized that Guardian Angel merely amplified a set of genetic possibilities already present in the human genome. It is possible that, in the past, more women possessed a skein but that this tendency was bred out over time”. […]
“Not all girls have it; contrary to early thinking, about five girls in a thousand are born without it. […] And there are a few boys with chromosome irregularities who have it, too”.
It’s possible that the author did intend a purely genetic origin for this phenotype. However, I think there are enough clues scattered throughout the text that we can be confident that there is supposed to be some kind of epigenetic component triggered by the nerve agent, probably on top of some underlying genetic variation. Luckily though, the exact origins of this new ability are superfluous to the story, and as such they don’t really need to be explained in any depth greater than what I like to call “epigenetic jazz hands”. So, plausible enough for sci-fi.
(I found that the most realistic part of the book, though, was the fictional message board entry reading “The government has been causing this change for years through carefully measured doses of hormones called VACCINATIONS. VAC as in VACUOUS, SIN as in our sinful souls, NATION as in the once great people who have been destroyed by this”. Spend enough time on real-life “epigenetics Twitter” and you’ll see exactly how realistic this little snippet is).
Overall The Power is a great read with some interesting concepts and compelling storytelling, but I found the ending a little heavy-handed. I thought while I was reading it that it would make a great movie, so I was excited to hear that Amazon are working on an adaptation.
Seveneves and ‘going epi‘
In contrast, Seveneves has some explicitly epigenetic themes, but is less fun to read, mostly due to its unnecessary length (my paperback edition runs to 860 pages) and inexplicable focus on explaining the precise, complicated details of the maneuvers needed to shift the orbits of space stations, and the physics of how chains move in regular and zero gravity. We don’t even reach the book’s eponymous scenario – that the human race finds itself effectively reduced to seven fertile women living in space, one of whom is a geneticist – until about two thirds of the way through.
Once we finally arrive at this point, we learn that each of the seven “Eves” gets to choose how the geneticist, Moira, manipulates their own genetic material. This is done via automictic parthenogenesis (jazz hands!) for the first couple of generations, until they can figure out how to synthesize a Y chromosome to produce male offspring. Moira offers to fix all existing genetic and radiation-induced mutations, and also to add one “free” genetic alteration or improvement per Eve. One woman chooses to enhance her offspring’s intelligence, another favours strength and discipline, another empathy, and so on. Moira herself chooses an epigenetic twist:
“If [catastrophic event had happened] a couple of decades earlier, Eve Moira wouldn’t have known about epigenetics. It was still a new science at the time she was sent up to the Cloud Ark […] Like most children of her era, she’d been taught to believe that the genome – the sequence of base pairs expressed in the chromosomes in every nucleus of the body – said everything there was to say about the genetic destiny of an organism […] The central promise of genomics – that by knowing an organism’s genome, scientists could know the organism – had fallen far short as it had become obvious that the phenotype (the actual creature that met the biologist’s eye, with all of its observable traits and behaviors) was a function not only of its genotype (its DNA sequence) but also of countless nanodecisions being made from moment to moment within the organism’s cells by the regulatory mechanisms that determined which genes to express and which to silence. […] When creating the children of the other six Eves, Moira had avoided using epigenetic techniques. She had felt at liberty, however, to perform some experiments on her own genome”. This tinkering is later described as “making her children into Swiss Army Knives” (highlighting added).
An updated version of the technique Moira uses to tweak her own genome is also used in the book to help re-seed the recovering Earth with new plant and animal species, in advance of human resettlement:
“thousands of years later, epigenetics was sufficiently well understood to be programmed into the DNA of some of the newly created species that would be let loose on the surface of New Earth. And one of the planks in the Get It Done platform was to use epigenetics for all it was worth. So rather than trying to sequence and breed a new sub-species of coyote that was optimized for, and that would breed true in, a particular environment, the GID approach was to produce a race of canines that would, over the course of only a few generations, become coyotes or wolves or dogs – or something that didn’t fit into any of those categories – depending on what happened to work best. They would all start with a similar genetic code, but different parts of it would end up being expressed or suppressed depending on circumstances.”
The results of these experiments are described as follows: ”Epigenetic transformation had been rampant – and, since Survey was thin on the ground, largely unobserved by humans. Still, when it led to results that humans saw, and happened to find surprising, it was known as “going epi.” Use of the phrase was discouraged for being unscientific”.
Jump forward five thousand years, and the thriving human population is now divided into seven distinct races, each descended from and named after their respective Eve. Epigenetic Swiss Army Knife “Moirans” are unique in that “which of [their] genes were being expressed at a given time, and which were laying dormant, was changeable to a degree far beyond what humans were normally capable of. It would have amounted to a kind of superpower, had there been a way to control it”.
The first Moiran we meet is called Kath Two. Our first hint of how Moira’s tinkering has affected her descendants comes from a conversation with a colleague who’s concerned that Kath Two’s sleepiness means that she might be starting to go epi. The colleague wishes her well: “”I hope your adjustment – whether or not it includes becoming Kath Amalthova Three – is a smooth one””. We later learn that “Kath One had died at the age of thirteen and been replaced by Kath Two, whose brain had a rather different set of emotional responses”, and also that “like a lot of young Moirans, Kath Two didn’t even try to establish a fixed home. With a home came a social circle, and perhaps a family. All of which was fine for the people of the other races. But until a Moiran “took a set,” such permanent arrangements were unwise, placing husband, children, coworkers, and friends at risk of waking up one day to find that their wife, mother, colleague, or pal had effectively died and been replaced by someone else. […] “Sometimes the results were brilliant. Rarely they were fatal. Sometimes they were inconvenient, or downright embarrassing. Most of the latter cases had something to do with what happened, like it or not, when a Moiran fell in love.” […] “As long as a Moiran kept changing, she could keep changing, but if she stayed one way for too long she would “take a set”, as the expression went, and find it hard to change back.”
The stimuli that can trigger an epigenetic shift include fatigue; close contact with animals, especially ones that are themselves going epi; and traumatic experiences, the latter effect apparently known in military jargon as POTESH (post-traumatic epigenetic shift). Someone who gives her name as Cantabrigia Barth Five is greeted with “Five. Wow. “You must have seen some crazy shit””, although a famous two-hundred-year old Twelve (“Epigenetic shifts could roll back many of the visible effects of aging”) is also mentioned. Here we see some parallels with real-life epigenetic science, which includes studies of how trauma and other stressful experiences, especially those encountered in the first few years of life, affect gene regulation. (I think there’s also a very interesting parallel here with the way Dæmons in Philip Pullman’s work can change form when their humans are young, but become fixed once their human reaches puberty).
So, in this world, “going epi” is a phrase in common parlance, epigenetic science is used to accelerate the natural process of evolution, and an epigenetic shift in a Moiran human is considered to be as significant as death and rebirth as an entirely different person (albeit with some retention of memories from earlier incarnations). Given that Moira’s epigenetic tinkering isn’t defined or explained in any level of detail (jazz hands!), this is actually a nice example of a somewhat plausible (and at least internally consistent) use of epigenetics in science fiction.
BUT. Do NOT get me started on how this book handles evolution. In this world, a five thousand year-long population explosion hasn’t been enough to diversify the physical and personality traits of the descendants of each Eve; all members of a given race still have an extremely strong resemblance to each other, as well as to their shared ancestor. Meanwhile, back on Earth, [MAJOR SPOILER AHEAD] a tiny isolated human population that managed to survive after the seven Eves and their companions left for space has somehow evolved at a much higher rate through selective breeding alone – no epigenetic jazz hands here! These humans are now hairless aquatic beings with blubber; mottled skin; flaps over their ears, eyes, and nostrils; webbed fingers; sharp teeth; and no external genitalia. All while the other seven races continue to be defined by the single genetic tweaks their respective Eves asked Moira to make to their genomes.
Stretching the science within science fiction is just fine by me, as long as it’s internally consistent; in my opinion, Seveneves passes on the epigenetics front, but fails when it comes to evolution. Of course, this might not have bothered me so much if I hadn’t had to wade through hundreds of pages of orbital mechanics and physics of chains to reach that point.
Is there more out there?
I’m aware of lots of other instances of epigenetics being used in fiction, including the television shows Orphan Black, The Watchmen, Transparent, and Blackish. I haven’t seen these shows myself yet, but they’re on my list. Let me know if you have any other examples to share!
Cath Ennis is a Knowledge Translation Specialist with the University of British Columbia’s Human Early Learning Partnership and the Kobor Lab at BC Children’s Hospital Research Institute.
Image credit: almapopescu via http://www.jovoto.com
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