The University of Southampton
Beyond the Gene

About the project

The concept of the gene was one of the most powerful scientific and cultural paradigms of the 20th century. But biomedical thinking is currently undergoing momentous changes which necessitate a radical rethink of the genetic paradigm in both scientific and cultural terms.

Current research in epigenetics is uncovering the complex entanglement of genetic and non-genetic factors which shape human development. The term ‘epigenetic’ was coined by CH Waddington as long ago as 1942 (prior to the advent of molecular genetics and genomics in 1953). Waddington used this term to suggest ways in which genes might function in dialogue with their environment.

In recent years the concept of epigenetics has been applied at a molecular level to illuminate a wide range of processes by which small changes to specific DNA nucleotides affect gene expression without changing the fixed sequence of DNA itself. It has become clear that the genetic code which we inherit from our parents accounts for only a small fraction of what makes us what we are as individuals.

Epigenetic processes are now known to operate not only in development, but in ageing, memory, emotional responses, reproduction, immunity, and so on. Epigenetic processes provide the stage on which the interactions between genes and environment are played out. They begin to indicate why lifelong patterns of health and disease can vary so much between individuals (including genetically identical twins) even when they inhabit the same environment.

Epigenetics is revolutionising drug discovery research, diagnostic measures and medical knowledge of the aetiology of disease. It also has major implications for social policy and public health.

Our project asks:

The project builds on, and adds cultural value to, existing research bases in biomedicine and the medical humanities through two inter-related themes for cross-disciplinary collaborative exploration:

Reconceptualising Inheritance

Changing metaphors

AHRC logo
Funded by the AHRC

Our funders

Each year the AHRC provides funding from the Government to support research and postgraduate study in the arts and humanities. Only applications of the highest quality are funded and the range of research supported by this investment of public funds not only provides social and cultural benefits but also contributes to the economic success of the UK. For further information on the AHRC, please go to: the AHRC website

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