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Epigenetics, the Glory and the Hype
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Epigenetics is real. But it doesn’t change everything. That needs to be said, because people seem to get the impression that everything is changed. In Trends in Genetics, Serving Epigenetics Before Its Time:

Society prizes the rapid translation of basic biological science into ways to prevent human illness. However, the premature rush to take murine epigenetic findings in these directions makes impossible demands on prospective parents and triggers serious social and ethical questions.

In their efforts to anticipate the eventual human applications of emerging areas of science, scholars of the ethical, legal, and social implications of genetics and genomics sometimes become too speculative to engage the immediate concerns of active scientists and policymakers. However, although evidence-based applications of human epigenetics may emerge in the future, premature epigenetic risk messaging is already here and its content and impact must be understood. The messages in circulation raise ethical and social concerns regardless of whether human epigenetic studies eventually confirm the murine results. Because the prospect for any successful human translation of epigenetic research depends as much on the management of these issues as on further human studies, they deserve close attention by all involved in their design, dissemination, and public consumption.

(the link is ungated)

• Category: Science • Tags: Epigenetics 
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  1. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    From my perspective, I have read blogs like your own, Greg Cochran’s, and gotten the impression that a lot of epigenetics is just unfounded hype. Outside of blogs like these, I’ve gotten the impression that Epigenetics is basically the new paradigm.

    Why do the children of drug addicts turn out to be drug addicts? Epigenetics!

    Why do the children of abusive parents turn abusive? Epigenetics!

    Why are you weird? Something must have happened to your parents! Epigenetics!

    It seems like lots of people just do not want to believe that genetics causes or contributes to complex traits, for political reasons, but seem happy enough to grasp onto Epigentics and the implication that, if only we treat unfortunate people alright in this life, their offspring will be born smart, healthy, peaceful, etc.

    So where, in your opinion, does the truth lie?

  2. #2 – I think that if an epigenetic effect is happening on a trait then it screws with the heritability estimates for that trait

  3. Joe Wallach, Dr. of Naturopathy, is currently touring the nation selling his book, “Epigenetics: The Death of The Genetic Theory of Disease Transmission”. His biggest claim to fame is the “proof that Cystic Fibrosis is caused by lack of dietary supplements”.

    I think that it’s already too late for epigenetics to become a part of medical science – it would have to be find another name in order to not be confused with the snake-oil sales

  4. A mouse is not just a small furry human. I suspect epicenetic findings in mice will turn out like aging research as it relates to translation to humans — mice are small and short lived with correspondingly different biology than humans.

  5. I’m far more bullish about the potential for the microbiome to influence human health than epigenetics. It is also transmissible from parent to child.

  6. It certainly doesn’t change everything, but…

    Look we all know what the main reason is as to why some people are skeptical of epigenetics. Its because epigenetics can totally ruin almost a centuries worth of just so stories in genetics and evolution for a certain group of scientists(and their followers) when dealing with humans… Especially in complex traits with “genes of such small effect that they cant be measured alone”. When genes(the same genes in humans) can change and adapt to environment without permanent mutation, it makes certain evolutionary theories less likely.

    Have you seen the study on Aguti mice and the fruit fly? The cloned mice merely had a different dietary intake and it caused a change in coat color, body size, fat and physical fitness. In the fruit fly a temperature change of about 10-15% caused an eye color change. All passed down through generations.

    We share 88% genes with mice and 47% with the fruit fly.

    Also I’m sure Darwin didn’t mind the idea:

  7. We share 88% genes with mice and 47% with the fruit fly.

    that sort of quote kind of makes you seem retarded.

    Also I’m sure Darwin didn’t mind the idea:

    since darwin was partly a believer in lamckarianism, no shit.

  8. #7 — I guess I was trying to make a more subtle point than all that. (1) Model organisms have gotten a lot of people a lot of excited about potential environmental impacts on human biology that don’t end up translating that well. One reason for this is that model systems are selected for different reproductive and lifespan traits — among others — than humans, and so don’t model all human biology equally well. (2) The level of enthusiasm for epigenetics seems to be inversely proportional to the individual’s level of knowledge of genetics and especially developmental biology. Most epigenetic features we wiped during gametogenesis. If there are mechanisms for some of those features to transmit (selectively?), that’s interesting but not earth-shattering and it’s not likely to lead to much in the way to therapies or social engineering opportunities, just as caloric restriction is unlikely to be a fountain of youth for humans, despite the good it does for mice and flies.

  9. to amplify #9, epigenetics is a hot field right now. but when you talk to people working in this area they’re a lot more modest, guarded, and cautious than what you see in the press.

  10. Seems like an entirely emotional thing to non-scientists. Ultimately, unless you’re coming up with treatments, it doesn’t really matter if a trait is epigenetic or genetic: you’re still stuck with it.

  11. #11, i don’t get your point. geneticists don’t care either way either (they’re the ones getting phds off studying epigenetics after all). it’s the non-scientists who regularly ask me about if ‘epigenetics is changing EVERYTHING’. mostly i assume because of press reports. see comment #7 as case in point.

  12. Err… why are you being mean?

    “that sort of quote kind of makes you seem retarded.”
    Its not a quote, its just stating fact.

    I agreed with you that not everything has changed, but some things have.

  13. Also my comment was based off of actual studies that are famous now.

    Some newer ones for the transgenerational part.

    There are more and more mechanisms for epigenetics being found.

    Don’t get angry at me though. All I am saying is that certain things change with epigenetics not everything… probably not most things, but some specific things do, like I mentioned earlier.

  14. #14 — its a very nice paper. I know the work of a few of the authors and they are excellent scientists.

    That said, it’s a finding of a mechanism of inter generational effects in a mutant strain of an animal that reproduces hermaphroditically, lives on average a few weeks and has no somatic cell division after adulthood. It may have very good reasons to have substantial epigenetic adaptation abilities.

    Super cool biology but not something that social scientists should be so excited about as it relates to humans.

    Does anyone know of a meaningful demonstrated effect in humans other than ?

  15. I should add, we need more research in biology being done without the aim of immediate applications to humans. Lots of important fundamental discoveries will be made that way and already have been: just look at the last few decades of Nobel prizes.

  16. Epigenetics can explain the differences in health and disease between the identical twins . It can explain the vulnerability to stress among those whose early life experienced stresses and possibly can explain the periodic nature of some of the mental illnesses . It also can explain the wide variation in the biological abnormalities or biomarkers among patients with the same syndromic diseases .

  17. There may be unexpected dangers even where epigenetics does matter; This thought was triggered by this recent paper:

    Feeding methyl donors to mice changed the expression of the agouti gene, as noted in comment #7, but look what happened to a different rodent when they fed it methyl donors. The agouti gene’s expression changed, but so did many other things, mostly for the worst. Folate is a methyl donor and is being put in all sorts of foods. But methylation is VERY widespread. Fiddling with it may have unexpected consequences… The snake oil salesmen rushing into the field may do real damage in places where epigenetics matters (because they are rushing in without careful experimentation or good understanding of what is happening and what else may be happening using the same mechanisms), even as they exaggerate its overall importance.

  18. #17 — those are all suggested mechanisms that do not entail germline transmission in an Lamarckian fashion. While I don’t know if those actual mechanisms have been demonstrated, changing gene expression in a somatic tissue isn’t nearly as far fetched as the Lamarckian transmission stuff.

  19. “that sort of quote kind of makes you seem retarded.”
    Its not a quote, its just stating fact.

    the facts you state are the kind that those who aren’t well informed in a field quote to intimidate or impress. it did neither.

    and lots of shit gets published in peer reviewed journals. some stuff in ‘high impact’ journals is crap.

    back to your original comment:
    Its because epigenetics can totally ruin almost a centuries worth of just so stories in genetics and evolution for a certain group of scientists(and their followers) when dealing with humans…

    that’s just plain bullshit. if epigenetics was half as awesome as the press releases may scientists would be very excited, including many colleagues of mine. you’re dealing in cliches and bluff. if you’re going to do that expect to call it like i see it.

  20. #18 — folic acid is generally considered safe because it is a water soluble vitamin and thus won’t accumulate — that said, designing good toxicity studies is devilishly hard. I would start by looking at international comparisons for natural experiments.

  21. A good open access review paper:

    The papers that seem to have gotten everyone really excited are:

    The critical point to remember is that these papers are about model organisms with potentially very different biology than humans in the very traits where these effects are being observed: longevity, fertility, energy metabolism, etc.

  22. […] Epigenetics, the Glory and the Hype – “Epigenetics is real. But it doesn’t change everything. That needs to be said, because people seem to get the impression that everything is changed.” – from razib. […]

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