Epigenetics describes modifications to the genome that can be passed on to future cells.These changes do not alter the nucleotide sequence of the DNA-the As, Gs, Ts, and Cs that make up our genes. Rather, they modify the "backbone" that supports the DNA sequence. These modifications influence when and how often a gene is active. Credit: Darryl Leja, NHGRI.

February 23, 2024, by Brigitte Nerlich

Making epigenetics familiar: The visual construction of transgenerational epigenetic inheritance in the news

Some time ago I wrote a blog post with Aleksandra Stelmach and Alan Miguel Valdez  about visuals used to make epigenetics public through the popular lens of transgenerational epigenetic inheritance. I then promised some image analysis. Here is a summary of what we found (I thank ChatGPT for helping me summarise our findings. If you want references, ask me. I won’t hallucinate them!)

A pre-print of the article on which this summary is based has now been published.


Epigenetics is a complex field that deals with the study of heritable changes in gene function that do not involve alterations to the underlying DNA sequence. It encompasses a variety of molecular mechanisms, including DNA methylation, histone modification, and non-coding RNA molecules.

One aspect of epigenetics is rather contested, namely transgenerational epigenetic inheritance or TEI for short. TEI refers to the transmission of epigenetic information from one generation to the next. It suggests that epigenetic changes acquired by an individual in response to environmental factors, such as diet, stress, trauma, adversity, or toxins, can be passed on to their offspring and potentially to subsequent generations. This concept challenges the traditional understanding that only genetic information is inherited from one generation to the next.

While there is some evidence supporting the idea that epigenetic marks can be passed between generations of some plants and animals, the field is complex, and researchers continue to explore the nuances of this phenomenon. Evidence for transmission in humans is so far sparse.

Despite the controversial nature of TEI, this aspect of epigenetics became a popular talking point in the media, where discussions about epigenetics often centred on TEI and in particular the transmission of adaptations to trauma and adversity. Social scientists have studied the potential impact of TEI on, for example, health and gender inequalities and social justice. Other scholars have tried to reveal the ‘verbal repertoire’, including metaphors, used when the media, but also the wellness industry, deal with the topic of epigenetics/TEI.

No study so far has focused on the ‘visual repertoire’ used to discuss epigenetics through the popular lens of TEI.


Using the search term “transgenerational epigenetic inheritance”, we scraped 160 images from Google News (used in a variety of news articles published between April 2009 and February 2022), and sorted the images by type and topic. (The numbers are small; so it’s premature to draw any solid conclusions from this. More research needed!)

Types of news outlets:

Images of TEI were used in articles written for a variety of news outlets. Most appeared in special interest news, followed by popular science outlets and mainstream newspapers/magazines.

Types of images:

Various genres of images were used, including press images, scientists’ headshots, archival images, technical/high-science images (including graphs, diagrams, graphics, microscopy images etc.), popular science images, original artwork, and cartoons. Many of the images in these categories were stock photos/images, that is, images that are made available for others to use, with the appropriate permission (usually, a license).

Image types correlated to some extent with publication types, with core science news using mainly technical images, popular science news relying on stock images of the double helix for example, and special interest or mainstream news using documentary or archival images of trauma or stock images of families.

Topics or themes:

We identified three broad thematic groups of images: science, trauma, and family.

Science-themed images generally focused on laboratory work, model organisms, the (mostly blue) DNA double helix, and challenges to traditional genetics. A typical example is a depiction of, for example, a model organism, such as a mouse (single or as a litter, sometimes held in the blue-gloved hands of scientists) or the fluorescent-glowing image of a nematode worm. Challenges posed to traditional genetics were visually represented through sepia portraits of Lamarck as well as photos of giraffes’ necks.

Trauma-related images depicted historical events, such as the Dutch Hunger Winter, the Holocaust, and artistic/metaphorical representations of damaged brains, bodies or DNA. A typical example is a series of photos of a multi-generational family walking along a beach holding hands, with several members of the family shaded out; or a family of four sitting near the sea with the father and one child, the son, showing a glowing bomb within their bodies.

Family-themed images often featured stock photos of families, portraying everyday life and emphasising the integration of TEI into collective identities. A typical example is an article combining a stock photo of a double helix with that of a grandfather holding a toddler. This combined use of two images, one a familiar science icon, the other a typical family snapshot, makes unfamiliar TEI familiar and the scientifically abstract concrete.

Hopes and fears:

Images may evoke emotions, such as hope and fear. In the images we found, fear images predominated but we also found some images that may elicit hope. Fear related to the transmission of stress or trauma. Hope related to stopping this transmission through lifestyle and pregnancy/family care.

Fears were represented by images of historical trauma, depression or metaphorical illustrations of threats, such as a double helix that is charred, a ghostly abstract profile view of heads that get gradually greyer, or a black side shot of a head against an abstract rendition of a blue clock. It should be stressed that even stories debunking claims about TEI are sometimes illustrated with images of, for example, the brain as a word cloud with the acronym PTSD prominent in the middle, surrounded by other words like ‘fear’, ‘anxiety’, and ‘flashbacks’.

Hopes were portrayed through images of happy families, often emphasising white families, and presenting epigenetics as a chance for a better future through the image of caring pregnant women. Typically, we find happy scenes of fathers or grandfathers, mothers and grandmothers smiling at the camera in various poses, very similar to either staged or spontaneous family photos, mostly in calm pastel colours (even illustrating articles talking about pollution for example).

In this way, images make what is scientifically contested familiar and emotionally sticky. TEI becomes part of the family.


In the small corpus of images we studied, the imagery surrounding epigenetics often falls into three categories: stereotypical scientific representations, depictions of families (and trauma or happiness), and representations of historical events (and trauma). Scientific images, such as the double helix, convey credibility, while historical images provide authenticity, and family depictions normalise epigenetics in everyday life.

We found a lack of a dominant, iconic representation for epigenetics and TEI. Unlike other genomic advancements with clear symbols, such as cloning and Dolly or gene editing and scissors, epigenetics lacks a singular framing. The once iconic ‘epigenetic landscape’ made famous through the work of Conrad Waddington was absent from our corpus.

We noted a shift from the depiction of the power of genes to the power of families, fathers and pregnant women shaping genetic outcomes. However, we also found a new form of epigenetic essentialism in archival images, suggesting that epigenetic destiny may reside in ancestors. We did not observe many changes in the depiction of epigenetics/TEI over time. Despite evolving scientific understanding and diminished excitement about TEI in ongoing scientific research, visual representations in popular news have not changed significantly.

The use of images for the representation of epigenetics/TEI is in general more promotional than informative, potentially diverting attention away from ongoing developments in the field. In the context of epigenetics, much of the visual overstating of hopes and fears appears ironically to happen through the use of understated images of mundane family life.

We suggest that the particular types and topics of images representing epigenetics through the lens of TEI may shape public understanding of epigenetics in specific ways, potentially creating unrealistic expectations. Our study of visual representations of TEI across different outlets highlights the complex interplay between science communication, cultural interpretation, and societal perceptions of epigenetics and TEI.


This is my last post on epigenetics. If you want to read all the other posts on the topic which have appeared here since 2013, you can have a look here and here.


Image: Flickr Credit: Darryl Leja, NHGRI.

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