World experts meet in Edinburgh to consider how life experiences impact on our genes

25 June 2012

World experts from the fields of social, biological and medical science will today (Monday 25 June 2012) gather in Edinburgh to discuss how they can cooperate to improve our understanding of the way behaviours and life experiences can influence how our genetic inheritance is expressed (epigenetics). This collaboration will also help contribute to understanding the implications epigenetic changes have for such key social policy issues as parenting, poverty, obesity and health.

The symposium is organised by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) in collaboration with the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the ESRC Genomics Policy and Research Forum, and hosted at Edinburgh's City Chambers. Entitled Social science and epigenetics: opportunities and challenges, the symposium will seek to examine how multidisciplinary research into epigenetics – the science of the lasting marks that modify the expression of the genes encoded in our DNA – might help provide answers to societal concerns including why deprivation has such a marked impact on child development and on health outcomes.

Epigenetics (literally 'above the gene') is a recent scientific development that examines how particular mechanisms can influence whether certain genes are turned off, turned on, or modify a gene’s level of activity.  Our genome includes both our DNA and chromatin that binds everything together. Research into epigenetics has revealed that even though a person’s DNA is not altered, lasting 'marks' on the DNA or the chromatin structure alter the extent to which each gene is expressed to produce the proteins that are the essential building blocks of life. Emerging research shows that factors such as poverty, parenting, stress and diet can impact how someone's genes are expressed, and this can remain "hard wired", with certain of these lasting epigenetic marks even being passed from parents to children.

Speaking as the epigenetic symposium commenced Professor John Hobcraft of the University of York, the lead scientific organiser of the Symposium, said: "Research is beginning to indicate how environmental and social factors are linked to a series of epigenetic changes, sometimes across quite broad areas of the genome.  Factors such as the way in which parents bring up their offspring (parenting, diet, cognitive inputs) or experience of social disadvantages seem to have implications for how genes manifest themselves in later life." 

"By bringing together experts from biological, medical and social sciences, this symposium will help determine how we can best work co-operatively to address 'grand challenge' research questions on the links between the social sciences and epigenetics and the pathways and mechanisms involved. Further progress in understanding the consequences of these epigenetic changes, and their potential reversibility for later in life, has the potential to bring benefits to individuals and society as a whole."

Commenting on the significance of the symposium to Scotland Professor Steve Yearley, Director of the Edinburgh-based  ESRC Genomics Policy and Research Forum, said: "Scotland has long been at the forefront of life-sciences and social science research. It is therefore fitting that such a high-profile event, bringing together a diverse group of international experts to determine the opportunities and challenges research into epigenetics presents for the world, should be hosted in Scotland."

"Equally, recent scientific studies have indicated that some of the problems Scotland continues to experience in relation to poor health – despite efforts by policy-makers to address these – may actually be linked to epigenetic changes resulting from social deprivation. This may partly underlie the so-called 'Glasgow effect'".

ESRC Press Office:

Notes for editors

  1. The ESRC International Scientific Symposium: Social science and epigenetic: opportunities and challenges will take place at Edinburgh City Chambers, 25-26 June 2012.  It will bring together expert social, biological and medical scientists to take forward thinking and explore the opportunities for promoting co-operation and collaboration between scientists and social scientists in the field of epigenetics
  2. The symposium is being organised by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) with support from the Genomics Forum, and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).
  3. As set out in a Scottish Government study reported in 2010, the link between socio-economic circumstances and health is well know, and there is an increasing evidence base supporting the hypothesis of a 'Scottish Effect', and more specifically a 'Glasgow Effect', the terminology used to identify higher levels of mortality and poor health found in Scotland and Glasgow beyond that explained by socio-economic circumstances. Subsequent research undertaken at the University of Glasgow has indicated that such health inequalities may be due, at least in part, to epigenetic effects resulting from socio-economic circumstances  - http://medicalxpress.com/news/2012-01-health-inequalities-imprinted-dna.html 
  4. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK's largest organisation for funding research on economic and social issues. It supports independent, high quality research which has an impact on business, the public sector and the third sector. The ESRC’s total budget for 2012/13 is £205 million. At any one time the ESRC supports over 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and independent research institutes.
  5. The ESRC Genomics Forum has a commitment to promote social research on the contemporary life sciences around issues including designer babies, synthetic blood, DNA profiling, identity politics, personalised medicine, stem cell research and synthetic biology. Creative engagements form a valuable part of this work helping to reach new audiences. Based at the University of Edinburgh, the Forum runs a programme of national and international activities to draw natural and social scientists, policy makers, regulators, civil society and business into an ongoing dialogue about the relationship between genomics and society.  The Forum is part of the ESRC Genomics Network.
  6. The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) invests in world-class bioscience research and training on behalf of the UK public. Our aim is to further scientific knowledge to promote economic growth, wealth and job creation and to improve quality of life in the UK and beyond. Funded by Government, and with an annual budget of around £445M (2011-2012), we support research and training in universities and strategically funded institutes. BBSRC research and the people we fund are helping society to meet major challenges, including food security, green energy and healthier, longer lives. Our investments underpin important UK economic sectors, such as farming, food, industrial biotechnology and pharmaceuticals. For more information about BBSRC, our science and our impact see: http://www.bbsrc.ac.uk