Adrian Bird, Howard Cedar and Aharon Razin were hotly tipped to win this year’s Nobel Prize for Medicine for their pioneering work in the field of epigenetics. They didn’t win. But their nomination is a triumph for an area of science too often dismissed as a phenomenon and a landmark in our small field’s history.
Epigentics is the study of how chemical changes caused by our environment can alter our gene expression - without altering DNA structure. My work with identical twins has shown just how different people with the same genes and the same upbringing can turn out to be and how we may not be as hard-wired as we like to think.
But even since the time of 18th century French naturalist Lamarck, epigenetics has been continually in the shadow of Darwin and its much bigger brother: genetics.
For most of its history it has been ridiculed as pseudo-science. In the 1920s, the “Wizard of Lizards” - Austrian Paul Kammerer - claimed to have changed the way Midwife Toads breed merely by altering the water temperature and was a big International star. But he was accused of fraud by US competitors and though this was never proven, he committed suicide six weeks later.
Stalin’s main scientist, Trofim Lysenko, brought the area of epigenetics further into disrepute in the 1930s by continually making up false data and propaganda on the vernalisation of plants. By freezing seeds he claimed the yields could be increased several fold and feedstarving peasants. It wasn’t until Conrad Waddington, an Englishman born in India and Fellow of the Royal Society, started working on amphibians and fruitflies at the beginning of the 1940s that some credibility was gained. He worked out that epigenetics was crucial for how cells develop. Sadly though – the discovery of DNA overshadowed his work which was forgotten for many years.
Epigenetics is still thought of by many as an interesting diversion – useful for normal development but an “epi-phenomenon” in terms of disease. Although there are a few special rare diseases like Retts syndrome studies where epigenetic imprinting of most of a gene is crucial – for the most part most scientists see it as a dust-bin where all non-true genetic associations are dumped.
Ten years ago a colleague of mine working in epigenetics at a large genomic institution was told by the boss that epigenetics was not a real part of genetics and that he should change subjects to “something more serious”. Luckily he ignored the advice. Today that advice is unlikely to happen again, although there is still much prejudice from mainstream geneticists against what many see as a young field that claims to explain “too much”.
The Nobel prizes given last year to Shinyi Yamanaka and John Gurdon for their work on reprogramming stem cells and cloning were using epigenetic techniques to show how reversible changes can be introduced. Bird, Cedar and Razin have focused their work on how these signals and changes can now be used for therapies and understanding diseases.
With an increasing number of anti-cancer epigenetic drugs now on the market for various leukaemias and others soon to follow – and with the recognition of the world most eminent scientific bodies – epigenetics can no longer just be dismissed as an phenomenon. It is here to stay and should be embraced without prejudice.