Nature or nurture? UBC events showcase emerging field of epigenetics

Epigenetics is the study of how a person’s experiences can affect how their genes are expressed, and how that expression could possibly be passed down to future generations.

Epigenetics is the study of how a person’s experiences can affect how their genes are expressed

DNA is programmed to turn certain genes up or down by adding a chemical marker in specific places. (iStock)

A traumatic event in a person's life can literally change the way their genes are expressed — affecting that person's development later in life, and possibly even the development of future generations.

That's according to the study of epigenetics, an emerging scientific field, that is the focus of a University of B.C. workshop from April 27 to 29, featuring presentations from both UBC and international researchers.

"Having the knowledge empowers us to make decisions, to work with our policymakers, to influence our policymakers to perhaps create conditions in which our children get the best and most healthy start to life," said Michael Kobor, a professor of medical genetics at UBC and the Canada Research Chair in social epigenetics.

Kobor will be speaking about epigenetics along with other UBC researchers at a public lecture at Science World on April 27.

Epigenetics is the study of the chemical reactions that regulate the activity of a person's genes, and the factors — the environment, nutrition and so forth —  that influence those reactions.

"Think of a gene as a light bulb … and if you live in a fancy house you've got a dimmer, and the epigenetics really is the dimmer," Kobor told host Rick Cluff on The Early Edition.

"We have 25,000 of these light bulbs in our body, so you can imagine how exciting this is for regulation."

Kobor said that some of the most groundbreaking research in this field came out of McGill University, where researchers found that rat babies raised by mothers that were anxious and not very nurturing also became anxious when they became adults, whereas babies raised by relaxed, high-nurturing mother rats became relaxed adults when they grew up.

Experiences can alter genetic makeup

"My McGill colleagues have shown that licking and grooming in rats leaves a lasting impact on the genome of their offspring," he said.

"If the offspring got a lot of love from their mom early in life they were less stress-prone in adulthood."

Kobor said the "most controversial and at the same time the most tantalizing" question in the current field of epigenetics is whether or not this genetic expression could be passed down to future generations, especially in the case of major historical traumas such as the Holocaust or the native residential school system in Canada.

"If epigenetics were indeed potentially transmitted across generations, it would really provide an explanation for the lasting effects of many of these traumas," he said.

He said this could have major consequences for both policymakers and society as a whole.

"It would mean that as a society, we need to be aware that whatever we do. Whether it's as a society or as a family, it literally can get under the skin and can last with us not only for a lifetime, but can potentially affect our grandchildren."

With files from CBC's The Early Edition


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