Epigenetics: are you what your parents ate?

Sunday 21 October, 12.15pm until 1.15pm, Frobisher Auditorium 2

‘Babies born into poverty are damaged forever before birth’, ‘Mother’s diet during pregnancy alters baby’s DNA’, ‘Pregnant 9/11 survivors transmitted trauma to their children’. These recent headlines may sound like fanciful pseudoscience, but all of them have their basis in a legitimate and increasingly prominent field of scientific study – epigenetics. Epigenetics deals with the fact that although our genes are replicated throughout most of the cells of our body, different genes are expressed in different parts of the body and at different times. Chemical changes can alter the effect of our DNA, without there needing to be any change to the sequence of the DNA itself. Such changes can occur in response to our circumstances, can endure within our lifetimes, and can even be inherited by our children and grandchildren. A simplistic way of summing this up (which fails to do justice to the subtleties involved) would be to say that contrary to what you were told at school, Lamarck was right – we can inherit acquired characteristics.

For campaigners who have long argued that early infant experience determines wellbeing in later life, and that we should therefore take great care in raising our children, this seems to be a vindication from science. It also suggests that even if we don’t care about our own health, we should realise our bad habits may be harming the next generation. Epigenetic studies have linked unhealthy diets and the effects of pollution to asthma, diabetes and obesity in our offspring. One recent article on the subject was titled: ‘We are what our mums ate.’

Nevertheless, critics – and even some of the key figures within epigenetics – take issue with these conclusions. Does epigenetics really provide scientific justification for what some see as a moralistic outlook on how we affect our children? Why has the field become so prominent now, a full 70 years after the term ‘epigenetics’ was first coined by the biologist CH Waddington? And does epigenetics finally break down the distinction between the natural and social sciences, or is it all the more important to disentangle the two?

Listen to session audio:


Download mp3 (Right-click and choose “save link as”)

John Gillott
researcher, Innogen, Open University; co-author, Science and the Retreat from Reason

Professor Marcus Pembrey
founder and chair, Progress Educational Trust

Marilyn Monk
emeritus professor of molecular embryology, University College London

Sandy Starr
communications officer, Progress Educational Trust; webmaster, BioNews

Produced by
Sandy Starr communications officer, Progress Educational Trust; webmaster, BioNews
Recommended readings
Ministers urged to use epigenetic research when tackling public health problems

Significant improvements could be made to public health by building upon the findings of epigenetic research, according to a leading expert on epigenetics and child health.

Sandy Starr, BioNews, 18 September 2012

Misery index

Low social status is bad for your health. Biologists are starting to understand why

Economist, 15 April 2012

We are what our mums ate

With the help of old maternity notes, scientists have discovered that adult health is directly related to childhood nutrition

David Derbyshire, Guardian, 7 November 2011

Human Transgenerational Responses with Dr Marcus Pembrey

Dr. Marcus Pembrey provides a nice background on his experiences with imprinting and how it might provide a means for transgenerational adaptation.

epigenie, 10 September 2011

Why Your DNA Isn't Your Destiny

For decades, we have stumbled around massive Darwinian roadblocks. DNA, we thought, was an ironclad code that we and our children and their children had to live by. Now we can imagine a world in which we can tinker with DNA, bend it to our will. It will take geneticists and ethicists many years to work out all the implications, but be assured: the age of epigenetics has arrived.

John Cloud, Time, 7 January 2010

Grandfather made me what I am

The new study of epigenetics makes the old nature versus nurture argument irrelevant

Joanne Marlor, Daily Telegraph, 31 October 2007

They know what we're thinking?

"The Battle of Ideas is quite simply the single most impressive and intellectually challenging event I have ever attended."
Professor Neil McKeganey, director, Centre for Drug Misuse Research

follow the Academy of Ideas