The term epigenetics was coined in the 1940s by developmental biologist Conrad H. Waddington, but only recently has it started to be recognised as a branch of biology. This is a complex and at times controversial area of bioscience – trying to learn more about it often leaves us with more questions than answers. What is epigenetics? How does it affect us? Why are we only hearing about it now?
To make this fascinating field of biology more accessible to the public, the Biochemical Society organised a public lecture and debate at the British Science Festival entitled “Epigenetics – Why You Don’t Have Teeth in Your Eyeballs”. Chaired by Professor Alice Roberts (University of Birmingham, UK), with speakers Dr Nessa Carey (PraxisUnico), Professor Bryan Turner (University of Birmingham, UK) and Professor Charles Craddock (University of Birmingham, UK), the event featured a brief introduction to epigenetics by Dr Carey followed by an hour of questions and debate with the audience.
Speaking to a full house, Dr Carey began by introducing examples of epigenetics that we see all around us. For example, a caterpillar and a butterfly have identical DNA but they express entirely different genes. She explained that scientists have realised “the genetic code is not the answer to everything” and that something else must be occurring to create these phenomenon.
To explain the molecular mechanism of epigenetics, Dr Carey used marshmallows, strawberry laces and jelly tots. You can watch a video of her demonstration here. Next, the “Professor of Jelly Tots” Professor Bryan Turner, a leading figure in the field of epigenetics, discussed whether there was a boundary between genetics and epigenetics. He reminded us:
“Genes are the cards you’re dealt. Genetics is the outcome determined by the hand, but epigenetics is how you play that hand.”
Chair Professor Roberts then opened the debate to the audience. With no shortage of fantastic questions, the debate was lively and at times controversial!
Some of the questions asked were:
- How does epigenetics fit within the nature vs nurture debate?
This question sparked debate about whether you can separate nature and nurture, with Professor Turner commenting:
“It’s important to get away from the nature vs nurture debate and focus on trying to find out the molecular mechanisms as to how epigenetics works.”
Dr Carey added “Epigenetics is the molecular bridge between nature and nurture.”
- Will epigenetics help us to create personalised medicines?
Professor Craddock’s answer provided a medical perspective to the potential impact of epigenetics:
“It may be possible to use a person’s genetic sequence to determine what drugs work best for them. We will need scientists and physicians to work together.”
This led to further debate about the role of epigenetics in treating various disorders, and the need for scientists and large companies to work together to provide funding for this research.
- Why are some epigenetic changes inherited when others are not?
One of the more controversial topics, the speakers discussed this at length, acknowledging the role of epigenetics in inheritance can border on Lamarckism!
Dr Carey made it clear that more studies needed to be done on inheritance and epigenetics, but there are several examples such as the Dutch Hunger Winter which suggest epigenetic modifications can be passed on through generations.
- Can you be your own devil’s advocate – what worries you about epigenetics?
The most discussed question of the event, this query led to a brilliant debate with the panel.
Professor Turner acknowledged “There aren’t many clear, specific, concrete examples of epigenetics. The sheer complexity of the science is worrying” which lead to Professor Roberts questioning whether epigenetics really exists, are the epigenetic drug treatments available proof it does exist?
This led to further debate, with Dr Carey adding “we know the drugs work and we know how they work, but we don’t know why!”
The panels’ knowledge and enthusiasm for the subject combined with the fantastic audience participation led to an interesting, exciting event. By discussing epigenetics from medicinal, scientific and philosophical perspectives, the session was informative and thought-provoking.
This event was made by possible by the Biochemical Society, the University of Birmingham and the British Science Association. It was co-funded by the Federation of European Biochemical Societies, who celebrated their 50th anniversary this year.
Read our epigenetics fact sheet to find out more about this fascinating area of science.