Subscribe to the BioNews newsletter for free

Login
Advanced Search

Search for
BioNews

Like the Progress Educational Trust on Facebook


The Fertility Show


 

Book Review: The Epigenetics Revolution - How Modern Biology is Rewriting Our Understanding of Genetics, Disease and Inheritance

10 September 2012

By

Appeared in BioNews 672

The Epigenetics Revolution: How Modern Biology is Rewriting Our Understanding of Genetics, Disease and Inheritance

By Dr Nessa Carey

Published by Icon Books

ISBN-10: 1848313470, ISBN-13: 978-1848313477

Buy this book from Amazon UK

'The Epigenetics Revolution: How Modern Biology is Rewriting Our Understanding of Genetics, Disease and Inheritance' by Dr Nessa Carey


In her new book, 'The Epigenetics Revolution', Nessa Carey argues that we are in the midst of the next great upheaval in biological thinking. Epigenetics refers to heritable alterations in the expression of genes, resulting in knock-on effects that direct how a cell will behave and what it will become, and all without making any changes to the DNA sequence itself.

If all our cells contain the same genetic material at the level of the DNA sequence, how then do they acquire such differing characteristics, and how are these retained? In other words, what causes cells to develop into specific types? Why do liver cells produce more liver cells when they divide? What stops neurons from growing in our heart? Much of Carey's book is devoted to answering these questions by drawing on the (relatively) new science of epigenetics.

Simplified, epigenetics involves small chemical changes to the DNA, or closely associated proteins called histones, that result in alterations in the expression of genes. When cells divide, many of these modifications are maintained, allowing information about the status of gene expression to be passed from parent cell to daughter. Importantly, these epigenetic modifications result from environmental perturbations, where 'environment' refers to the internal chemistry of the cell or the signals bombarding the cell from outside, whether from neighbouring cells or the wider world beyond.

Early in the book, Carey describes the molecular mechanisms behind epigenetic phenomena. DNA and histone modifications are rightly afforded much insightful commentary, but the role of non-protein coding RNA molecules is exiled to much later and is not, in my opinion, given sufficient attention.

Though the majority of epigenetic modifications are erased during development of the human embryo, it seems that in some rare cases they can be passed on to the next generation. However, at the moment we ought not read too much into this. There remains little concrete evidence that epigenetic phenomena alone can drive evolutionary adaptations, although there is much vociferous debate in the scientific community regarding the extent of its effects. It is perhaps surprising then to find very little discussion of the role of epigenetics in evolution in Carey's book. This omission is a shame as popular science at its best is a wonderful medium for such debate. For this topic, I recommend 'Evolution in Four Dimensions' by Eva Jablonka and Marion Lamb.

Instead, Carey largely focuses on cell and molecular biology, with topics including stem cells, ageing, psychiatric disorders and cancer. Here, she is expert and engaging. From her lucid prose you can learn how a period of malnutrition during pregnancy can have quantifiable effects on the health status of future generations. You can come to appreciate that the genome inherited from mother is not identical to that inherited from father and that while these two genomes cooperate fabulously to create new life, they are nevertheless locked in an evolutionary battle of the sexes.

More than your average popular science book, there is a commendable depth of explanation and a wealth of scientific terminology to be found here. While the latter may be off-putting to some, Carey's adept use of metaphor provides clarity throughout.

Without being mawkish, the author is explicit in her regard for the principle players in the epigenetics arena, particularly those whose insight and experimental dexterity pioneered the now burgeoning field. We are introduced to the trailblazing work of John Gurdon, whose early work led to the technology used to create Dolly, the famous and arthritic sheep. We are also afforded a flavour of Gurdon as the 'quintessential older English gentleman', adding a human face to scientific discovery.

The philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn once wrote that 'when paradigms change, the world itself changes with them'. What then will be the broader implications of our increasing understanding of epigenetic phenomena and their molecular principles? The science of regenerative medicine and the technology of induced pluripotent stem cells – both discussed in 'The Epigenetics Revolution' – offer tremendous potential for the future treatment of human disease. Carey also discusses so-called 'epigenetic therapies' for cancer that, whilst still in the embryonic phase, may be powerful tools in the future. For now though, much work remains and we must guard strongly against the raising of false hope.

'The Epigenetics Revolution' is, to my knowledge, the first popular science book that tackles in depth the subject of its title. This salient fact is almost reason enough to recommend it. As an active biologist already familiar with many of the concepts, I found the book both interesting and informative. Any reader of science will find much here to enjoy. Carey's achievement is an up-to-date account of an important aspect of modern molecular biology, written with dry humour, peppered with historical anecdotes, sometimes challenging, but always clear and insightful.


Buy Embryology at a Glance from Amazon UK.

SOURCES & REFERENCES

RELATED ARTICLES FROM THE BIONEWS ARCHIVE

21 December 2015 - by Isobel Steer 
If you'd like to learn more about epigenetics, or just watch a masterly science presenter at work, look to 2015 Francis Crick Prize winner Professor Rob Klose...
10 November 2014 - by Matthew Thomas 
You and all the whales, rhinos and bats owe your lives to a tiny shrew...
03 June 2013 - by Matthew Thomas 
Nothing is certain, the old saying goes, except death and taxes. Professor Dame Linda Partridge is working on the former...
11 March 2013 - by Professor John Galloway 
Perhaps fortuitously, I started to read Maxwell Mehlman's book at the same time as Roy Porter's 'A short history of madness'. It was then difficult not to muse on what Jonathan Swift might have made of 'transhumanising scientists'...
14 January 2013 - by James Lush 
'Beautiful science' was how Dr Nessa Carey described epigenetics at the Biochemical Society Annual Symposium Public Lecture, held at the University of Leeds...

23 April 2012 - by Ruth Pidsley 
Epigenetics has become something of a hot topic in recent years throughout the scientific community. 'Epigenetics: Linking Genotype and Phenotype in Development and Evolution', edited by Professors Benedikt Hallgrímsson and Brian Hall, reminds a new generation of molecular and systems biologists about the historical roots and scope of epigenetics...
16 April 2012 - by Dr Rachael Panizzo 
Epigenetics is a complex subject, so explaining it in just two minutes is a big ask. But that's what the short video clip, 'Health explained: epigenetics', on the BBC website attempts to do. Aimed at a general audience, the video succeeds in giving us a very basic introduction, but doesn't manage to capture what is new and exciting about this field of research...
13 December 2010 - by Professor Sandy Raeburn 
This Frontiers programme challenged three genetic dogmas. The presenter quoted a recent Observer headline on epigenetics: 'Why everything we were told about evolution was wrong!'...
15 February 2010 - by Charlie McDermott 
The International Human Epigenome Consortium (IHEC), launched in Paris last week, plans to map 1,000 reference epigenomes within a decade...
07 December 2009 - by Dr Aarathi Prasad 
Session 3 of the Progress Educational Trust's annual conference (PET), held on Wednesday 18 November 2009 at Clifford Chance, was chaired by Professor Dian Donnai,Professor of Medical Genetics at the University of Manchester, and started with a talk by Karen Temple, Professor of Medical Genetics and Honorary Consultant in Clinical Genetics at the University of Southampton and Wessex Clinical Genetics Service. Professor Temple gave an intriguing talk on the influence of parent...

HAVE YOUR SAY
Be the first to have your say.

You need to or  to add comments.

By posting a comment you agree to abide by the BioNews terms and conditions


- click here to enquire about using this story.

Published by the Progress Educational Trust

CROSSING FRONTIERS

Moving the Boundaries of Human Reproduction

Public Conference
London
8 December 2017

Speakers include

Professor Azim Surani

Professor Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz

Professor Robin Lovell-Badge

Sally Cheshire

Professor Guido Pennings

Katherine Littler

Professor Allan Pacey

Dr Sue Avery

Professor Richard Anderson

Dr Elizabeth Garner

Dr Jacques Cohen

Dr Anna Smajdor

Dr Andy Greenfield

Vivienne Parry

Dr Helen O'Neill

Dr César Palacios-González

Philippa Taylor

Fiona Fox

Sarah Norcross


BOOK HERE

Good Fundraising Code

Become a Friend of PET HERE and give the Progress Educational Trust a regular donation