Subscribe to the BioNews newsletter for free

Login
Advanced Search

Search for
BioNews

Like the Progress Educational Trust on Facebook


 


 

Radio Review: Frontiers - Epigenetics

13 December 2010

By Professor Sandy Raeburn

Professor Emeritus, University of Nottingham

Appeared in BioNews 588

Frontiers: Epigenetics

BBC Radio 4, Wednesday 8 December 2010

'Frontiers: Epigenetics', BBC Radio 4, Wednesday 17 March 2010


This Frontiers programme challenged three genetic dogmas. First, hereditary material retains its identity from generation to generation. Second, each parent passes about the same number of genes to their offspring. Third, variations in the severity and pattern of hereditary disease are mainly due to different mutations in DNA. The presenter quoted a recent Observer headline on epigenetics: 'Why everything we were told about evolution was wrong!'

The programme began by challenging dogmas one and three by summarising detailed birth records from Holland in the 1940s and 1950s. The data showed that children of women who had been starved during their pregnancies (as a result of German blockades and the diversion of food to Nazi populations) were smaller than normal with an increased risk of developing schizophrenia, obesity and diabetes.

Next, an interview with Progress Educational Trust founder Professor Marcus Pembrey challenged dogma two. Twenty-five years ago, Professor Pembrey showed why children with Angelman and Prader-Willi (PWS) syndromes had different conditions, but an identical deletion on chromosome 15. Children with Angelman had inherited the deletion from their mother while children with PWS had inherited the deletion from their father.

Professor Pembrey also explained genomic imprinting - a phenomenon where which genes are active depends on whether they are inherited from the father or mother. The presenter explained how imprinting occurs when the DNA is 'tagged' through a process called 'DNA methylation'.

The next scientist, Dr Alan Brown of New York, discussed how methylation of a gene (IGF2) influenced the behaviour of women starved at a critical point during their pregnancy. Dr Jonathan Mill from the Institute of Psychiatry, King's College London, meanwhile, talked about studies in mice suggesting the age of a child's father influenced the likelihood they would have autistic traits.

The programme also presented data from studies in North Sweden where - in the past - there were long winters and a higher risk of starvation. These studies showed the grandchildren of fathers starved in their mid-childhood growth periods (about age six to nine) showed differences in longevity from normal. Grandfathers with a good food supply in their mid-growth period were more likely to have grandchildren with diabetes.

Professor Pembrey and colleagues are actively involved in the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC), which set out to explore the effect of epigenetic and other mechanisms on growth measures like weight. ALSPAC found that - if a child's father started smoking before his puberty growth spurt - his sons were likely to have a greater body mass index at age nine.

Finally we heard from Dr Michael Skinner, a molecular epigeneticist from Washington State University. He seemed dismissive of the innovative epidemiological studies mentioned above when he said they were 'quite useful in that they proved that the phenomena exist'. In comparison, he said molecular epigenetic studies explain the mechanism by 'direct analysis'.

Dr Skinner, rightly, said molecular epigenetic studies and 'early stage diagnostics based on epigenetics' might lead to treatment strategies. The programme finished with a brief mention of how thinking has now gone 'full circle' - challenging some Darwinian evolutionary thinking. Epigenetics seems to suggest Lamarck's 'inheritance of acquired characteristics' is true.

This was an excellent programme and the presenter, Adam Rutherford, is to be congratulated on his lucid explanation. My slight disappointment is some molecular epigeneticists seem unaware of the value of collaborating with clinicians, epidemiologists and even affected families.

SOURCES & REFERENCES
BBC Radio | 08 December 2010
 

RELATED ARTICLES FROM THE BIONEWS ARCHIVE

08 December 2014 - by Dr Ross Cloney 
Wouldn't it be great to take charge of your evolution?...
10 September 2012 - by Dr Daniel Grimes 
In her new book, 'The Epigenetics Revolution', Nessa Carey argues that we are in the midst of the next great upheaval in biological thinking...
20 August 2012 - by Dr Chloe CY Wong 
The Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC), also known as the Children of the 90s study, is a Bristol University-based project that has followed children born to over 14,000 pregnant women who enrolled between 1991 and 1992. A wealth of health, environmental and lifestyle data, as well as biological samples has been collected by this longitudinal population-based study over the past 21 years...
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...

08 November 2010 - by Professor Sandy Raeburn 
About 15 years ago, I formed the view we should be less ambitious about improving 'Public Understanding of Science' because we should not expect the public to understand genetic principles in detail. Better, I thought, to give a grounding in core science skills...

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

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 Andy Greenfield

Dr Anna Smajdor

Dr Henry Malter

Vivienne Parry

Dr Helen O'Neill

Dr César Palacios-González

Philippa Taylor

Fiona Fox

Sarah Norcross

Sandy Starr


BOOK HERE

Good Fundraising Code

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