Jul 16, 2014, 9:00 AM, Posted by Nancy Barrand
Each month, What’s Next Health talks with leading thinkers with big ideas about the future of health and health care. Nancy Barrand, RWJF’s senior adviser for program development, hosted Randy Jirtle, senior scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison McArdle Laboratory, for a fascinating discussion about his work in epigenetics. Randy’s pioneering work in this field holds far-reaching implications for understanding and addressing the interplay between our genes and our environment. Randy answered follow up questions from Nancy to help lay out the basics behind epigenetics and what it might mean for our work moving forward. (Randy’s opinions are not necessarily those of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.)
Nancy Barrand: What is epigenetics?
Randy Jirtle: Epigenetics simply means above the genetics, and it refers to the study of heritable changes in gene function that occur without a change in the DNA sequence. So we now know that chemical modifications of the DNA, and the histones the DNA wraps around, actually determine whether genes are functional or not functional. These chemical modifications can be caused by environmental factors that we are exposed to, such as the nutrients we eat—or those our mother ate—or stress at critical junctures in our development.
Understanding how a single epigenetic change can totally disrupt the action or expression of a gene is providing us for the first time with information that will ultimately allow people to prevent diseases and conditions from ever happening, rather than just treating them after they occur.