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Epigenetics calls our understanding of genetic inheritance into question

Published: 
12 September 2012

For over a century we have been comfortable with the idea of genetic inheritance, which suggested that we were the product of fixed genes which were physically passed on from our parents. However recent research has shown that genes can be changed in multiple ways, especially during early development. This science is known as epigenetics (literally 'on or around the gene').

Epigenetics explains how external factors can influence whether certain genes are turned on or off, and can modify their level of activity. This shift in our understanding raises profound questions about how we see ourselves and the links we have with our families.

One of the key issues being explored by Professor Clare Hanson and her colleagues is the implications of this insight for our understanding of biological inheritance. This is the issue which will be debated at a public event at the Linnean Society on 12th September.

Professor Clare Hanson from the University of Southampton comments, “Inheritance is thought of in terms of likenesses that bind families together – hence the phrase family ties, and the popular interest in tracing our supposed biological origins. If genetics doesn’t work like this, and if development is more complex, with an almost infinite number of variations in gene expression possible depending on cues from the environment, within the body and outside it, then we have to think about inheritance differently. It is looser and more diffuse, and we are less predestined to be like our parents, or our ancestors, than we may have assumed.”

The event will feature Jeanette Winterson, author of the acclaimed memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal, Professor Evelyn Fox Keller, who has written extensively about post-genomic science, and Professor Tim Spector, who has written about the limits of genetic accounts of development in his recent book Identically Different.

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