Friday, March 23, 2012

The importance of epigenetics in understanding nature/nurture interactions

I'm vaguely aware of the vast new field of epigenetics, defined in various ways, but all definitions are based in the central concept that environmental forces can affect gene behavior, either turning genes on or off. I thought this recent summary by Helen Fisher was a nice statement of the importance of this new field:

..two basic mechanisms are known: one involves molecules known as methyl-groups that latch on to DNA to suppress and silence gene expression; the other involves molecules known as acetyl-groups which activate and enhance gene expression...Moroccan Amazighs or Berbers, people with highly similar genetic profiles reside in three different environments: some roam the deserts as nomads; some farm the mountain slopes; some live in the towns and cities along the Moroccan coast. Depending on where they live, up to one-third of their genes are differentially expressed.

...Genes hold the instructions; epigenetic factors direct how those instructions are carried out. As we age, these epigenetic processes continue to modify and build who we are. Fifty-year-old twins, for example, show three times more epigenetic modifications than do three-year-old twins; and twins reared apart show more epigenetic alterations than those who grow up together. Genes are not destiny; but neither is the environment...some epigenetic instructions are passed from one generation to the next. Trans-generational epigenetic modifications are now documented in plants and fungi, and have been suggested in mice.

The 18th century philosopher, John Locke, was convinced that the human mind is an empty slate upon which the environment inscribes personality. With equal self-assurance, others have been convinced that genes orchestrate our development, illnesses and life styles. Yet social scientists had failed for decades to explain the mechanisms governing behavioral variations between twins, family members and culture groups. And biological scientists had failed to pinpoint the genetic foundations of many mental illnesses and complex diseases. The central mechanism to explain these complex issues has been me as an anthropologist long trying to take a middle road in a scientific discipline intractably immersed in nature-versus-nurture warfare, epigenetics is the missing link. 


  1. Anonymous9:40 AM

    An even more important notion is "epigenomic". This term results from considering that the phenotype traits does not only result from the expression of particular genes and its environmental influences but from the simultaneous and synchronined activation of several oscilating gene regulatory networs whose expressions are also influenced by myriads of biological significant environmental stimuli.
    Epigenomics does not only explain the changes in the genome expression during the evolution of a community or the changes that takes place after birth. By contrast , the main scenario of the epigenome is the embryonic development. It is known that the embryonic development is the net result of several developmental cell behaviors operating simultaneously and interactively and that interactions amongs developing cells is the main developmental mechanism of cell behaviors regulation. Given that such interactions are mainly mediated by informative signaling molecules that diffuse from one cells to anothers, the global genetic expression of developing cells is mainly controlled by molecules that are released, at their microenvironment, by the neighboring cells. Thus, the embryonic developmet is perhaps the best way to illustrate how the phenotype of each cell type is elaborated and regulated by an ensemble of multiple informative molecules composing a network of cell signaling regulatory molecules "printed" in the extracellular environment.
    Vladimir Flores (

  2. Thank you for your added comments!