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Genomics Forum · News

'Grand challenge' symposium considers implications of epigenetics to society

25.06.2012

Introduction

World experts meet in Edinburgh to consider how life experiences impact on our genes.

Story

World experts from the fields of social, biological and medical science will today (Monday 25 June 2012) gather in Edinburgh to discuss how they can cooperate to improve our understanding of the way behaviours and life experiences can influence how our genetic inheritance is expressed (epigenetics). This collaboration will also help contribute to understanding the implications epigenetic changes have for such key social policy issues as parenting, poverty, obesity and health.

The symposium is organised by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) in collaboration with the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the , and hosted at Edinburgh's City Chambers. Entitled Social science and epigenetics: opportunities and challenges, the symposium will seek to examine how multidisciplinary research into epigenetics – the science of the lasting marks that modify the expression of the genes encoded in our DNA – might help provide answers to societal concerns including why deprivation has such a marked impact on child development and on health outcomes.

Epigenetics (literally 'above the gene') is a recent scientific development that examines how particular mechanisms can influence whether certain genes are turned off, turned on, or modify a gene’s level of activity. Our genome includes both our DNA and chromatin that binds everything together. Research into epigenetics has revealed that even though a person’s DNA is not altered, lasting 'marks' on the DNA or the chromatin structure alter the extent to which each gene is expressed to produce the proteins that are the essential building blocks of life. Emerging research shows that factors such as poverty, parenting, stress and diet can impact how someone's genes are expressed, and this can remain "hard wired", with certain of these lasting epigenetic marks even being passed from parents to children.

Speaking as the epigenetic symposium commenced Professor John Hobcraft of the University of York, the lead scientific organiser of the Symposium, said: "Research is beginning to indicate how environmental and social factors are linked to a series of epigenetic changes, sometimes across quite broad areas of the genome. Factors such as the way in which parents bring up their offspring (parenting, diet, cognitive inputs) or experience of social disadvantages seem to have implications for how genes manifest themselves in later life."

"By bringing together experts from biological, medical and social sciences, this symposium will help determine how we can best work co-operatively to address 'grand challenge' research questions on the links between the social sciences and epigenetics and the pathways and mechanisms involved. Further progress in understanding the consequences of these epigenetic changes, and their potential reversibility for later in life, has the potential to bring benefits to individuals and society as a whole."

Commenting on the significance of the symposium to Scotland , Director of the Edinburgh-based ESRC Genomics Policy and Research Forum, said: "Scotland has long been at the forefront of life-sciences and social science research. It is therefore fitting that such a high-profile event, bringing together a diverse group of international experts to determine the opportunities and challenges research into epigenetics presents for the world, should be hosted in Scotland."

"Equally, recent scientific studies have indicated that some of the problems Scotland continues to experience in relation to poor health – despite efforts by policy-makers to address these – may actually be linked to epigenetic changes resulting from social deprivation. This may partly underlie the so-called 'Glasgow effect'".

Read the full media release: World experts meet in Edinburgh to consider how life experiences impact on our genes

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Image of methylated DNA