Date Published: 12 September 2012
Epigenetics calls our understanding of genetic inheritance into question
The concept of genetic inheritance, i.e. the idea that forms of life including people are the product of fixed genes that were physically passed from parent to child and cannot be changed, has been increasingly accepted by many people over the last 100 years. The question is, is this an accurate reflection of biological truth, or of any truth for that matter ?
Recent research indicates that genes can be changed in multiple ways, especially during early development.
What is Epigenetics ?
The scientific study of the idea that genes can be changed in many ways is known as epigenetics (literally 'on or around the gene'). Epigenetics explains how external factors can influence whether certain genes are turned on or off, and can modify their level of activity. This shift in scientific understanding raises profound questions about the scientific view of our species and other species, including how some of us see ourselves as individuals and the attitudes we take to the links we have with our families.
Some of the key issues within epigenetics are being explored by Professor Clare Hanson and her colleagues at Southampton University (Hampshire, England). One such key issue is the implications of the recent understanding that genes are, or at least can be, affected by external factors for our understanding of biological inheritance. This is the issue which will be debated at a public event at the Linnean Society on 12th September.
Professor Clare Hanson from the University of Southampton said,
" Inheritance is thought of in terms of likenesses that bind families together ? hence the phrase family ties, and the popular interest in tracing our supposed biological origins. If genetics doesn't work like this, and if development is more complex, with an almost infinite number of variations in gene expression possible depending on cues from the environment, within the body and outside it, then we have to think about inheritance differently. It is looser and more diffuse, and we are less predestined to be like our parents, or our ancestors, than we may have assumed."
The event will feature Jeanette Winterson, author of the acclaimed memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal, Professor Evelyn Fox Keller, who has written extensively about post-genomic science, and Professor Tim Spector, who has written about the limits of genetic accounts of development in his recent book Identically Different.