LSSP Symposium highlights epigenetics of the womb and how parental stress can change genetic makeup
Could a stressful day during pregnancy change the future of a developing child nestled in the womb?
Experts in the epigenetic research field are saying yes.
This weekend the 11th annual Life Sciences and Society Program will kick off “Epigenetic Revolution: Nature, Nurture and What Lies Ahead,” bringing experts on environmental influences on offspring to the stage.
Two speakers will focus their talks on the period of time developing mammals spend in the womb and what factors could trigger changes in their genetics. Tracy Bale, from the University of Pennsylvania, and Irva Hertz-Picciotto., from UC Davis, promise to draw the largest crowds.
“I heard great things about Tracy Bale’s innovative research — several senior colleagues called her a rising star in the field — so we were keen to invite her,” said LSSP Symposium Director Mary Shenk. “The connection to neurodevelopmental disorders like autism was of strong interest on campus.”
Epigenetic research has could provide answers to some of our longest standing questions.
Epigeneticists reason that the nature versus nurture development notion doesn’t consider their overlap. The premise is that our future is not only influenced by the genetics of our parents, but also tweaked further down the line by environmental factors.
Don’t miss it: Stress Parents
Tracy Bale will speak in Bond Life Sciences Center’s Monsanto Auditorium at 9 a.m. Saturday. Her talk, “Stress Parents: Maternal and paternal epigenetic programming of the developing brain,” will cover cutting-edge research at the University of Pennsylvania where she linked parental stress, infection and malnutrition to an increased risk for the childhood development of neurodevelopmental disorders, like autism and schizophrenia.
Bale’s research provides tools to better understand how parental experiences trigger changes in their future offspring’s brain, and they could play an important role in disease risk and resilience.
She tests her theories in mice, finding epigenetic marks that were changed by male mice stress experiences. She said the research could one day translate to humans.
“If we can identify epigenetic marks in mice that are important in how their offspring develop, we might be able to understand more about human lifetime exposures to things like stress and how important such marks are in germ cells,” Bale said.
The bottom line is epigenetics can do what evolution does, but much more quickly. Bale wants the audience to walk away from her talk on Saturday morning understanding the importance of germ cells and how the influence of the environment can impact future offspring.
“This field helps to explain how an organism can rapidly respond to a changing environment and pass on potentially beneficial traits to future generations without the length of time evolution would require for such fitness,” Bale said.
Don’t miss it: Epigenetics and autism
Hertz-Picciotto will turn our discussion toward the topic of Autism: Past Evidence, Current Research and future quandaries” at 2:15 p.m. Saturday.
Her research began with three clues about autism: it tended to run in families, children with rubella had a high rate of autistic symptoms and children exposed prenatally to the drug thalidomide, show symptoms, as well.
“This is a controversial topic, but also an important one to learn more about given how many people’s lives are touched by autism,” Shenk said. “Dr. Hertz-Picciotto’s research and outreach work are very widely respected.”
Hertz-Picciotto, an environmental epidemiologist and professor of public health sciences at UC Davis, will highlight epigenetic studies being conducted, and key gaps, persistent myths and enigmas that still need to be solved during her talk on Saturday.
Bale and Hertz-Picciotto join many other speakers as part of this year’s LSSP Epigenetic Revolution Symposium.
The symposium begins Friday, March 13, with talks and presentations extending through March 15. Affiliated events will be going on the entire weekend, extending through March 17.
To introduce our 11th Annual Life Sciences and Society Program, The Epigenetics Revolution: Nature, Nurture and What Lies Ahead that runs at the University of Missouri March 13-15, we figured it would be nice to define the term epigenetics. Spoiler: It’s amazing and it could change everything.
According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, epigenetics is “the study of heritable changes in gene function that do not involve changes in the DNA sequence.”
Let’s break that down.
We can inherit something that changes what our genes do, but don’t actually change the code of our DNA.
So what sort of things do genes do?
It might be easier to think about it like this: Genes are like ingredients that make up a recipe which concocts a specific function. Each individual ingredient adds to the bigger picture. Say the recipe is our height. There are many, many genes involved in myself standing at 5 feet 6 inches and my sister towering over me at 5 feet 10 inches.
Though it’s not epigenetics that makes my sister taller than me, epigenetics could help help explain why identical twins exposed to different conditions over their lifetimes, may eventually produce offspring with extreme differences in height, as just one example.
Yesterday, Jack C. Schultz, director of the Christopher S. Bond Life Sciences Center, explained epigenetics to me this way:
“We are not simply the sum of the genes we have, but rather which ones are on or off,” Schultz said. “Those differences in gene activity explain why even identical twins are not totally identical.”
Mary Shenk, the director of this year’s LSSP symposium, said epigenetics is a revolutionary area of research that changes the way we think about genetic effects. Epigenetics research makes it clear that many aspects of the environment—including the social environment—can affect how genes are expressed, she said.
“We have always known that some traits—height, for instance—were strongly influenced by the environment through diet,” Shenk said. “But new research makes it clear just how many ‘genetic’ traits are subject to either environmental influences and/or other influences such as the sex of the parent a gene is inherited from.”
“This is a real game-changer in terms of how we see the world of genes, and makes notions of simple genetic determinism of complex traits increasingly unrealistic,” Shenk added.
The key to understanding epigenetics, is to consider the capabilities of the environment to “switch on or off” the expression of our genes.
Let’s reflect on something you may have (or haven’t) heard about: “Hogerwinter,” more well known as the Dutch Hunger Winter. The historic famine from the winter of 1944 to the spring of 1945, has been the focal point in some of the most infamous epigenetic research.
Investigators wanted to know if prolonged famine conditions could have an effect on the offspring of pregnant mothers during that time.
“The Epigenetics Revolution: How Modern Biology Is Rewriting Our Understanding of Genetics, Disease, and Inheritance,” by Nessa Carey published by Columbia University Press in 2012, makes a compelling argument about the famine effect on gene expression in subsequent generations.
The research looked at children who were in the second trimester of their mother’s pregnancy during the winter of 1944-1945, and they found an increased incidence of schizophrenia in those children.
Carey’s research suggests epigenetics could explain effects of famine, on the expression of certain genes of the offspring of mothers pregnant during that time.
Epigenetics are the nucleus of the 11th Annual Life Sciences and Society Program held at the University of Missouri next weekend, March 13-15. The field has the potential to unlock some of our longest standing questions about who we are and why we are this way, scientists say. The event is a great opportunity to learn more about “The Epigenetics Revolution.”
Schultz says the field of epigenetics is exploding, and it’s important to us for three big reasons.
One: Epigenetics helps us understand how we – or any organism – can cope with changing conditions even though we can’t change our genetic makeup.
Two: Epigenetics explains how traits can be passed from parent to offspring without changing genetic makeup.
Three: Many human diseases, including cancer, seem to involve epigenetic activity. Experiences of the parents, or of developing embryos in the womb could be responsible for difficult-to-understand problems in the offspring, such as cognitive disorders including autism spectrum disorders.
“Discovering how epigenetics works is like discovering an entirely new language,” Schultz said. “That language links our experiences – even emotional ones – to the way we are and the way our offspring look and behave.”
Schultz said exploring those links can help us understand how our environment shapes us and our societies.
According to Shenk, director of the Life Sciences and Society Program, the nine speakers coming to the MU campus all bring their own expertise to epigenetics. As far as picking a speaker, Shenk said it’s hard to choose just one.
Nonetheless, here are a few to keep on your radar, according to Shenk:
“I am especially looking forward to hearing Annie Murphy Paul talk about her experiences writing about maternal effects for a general audience.
“Tracy Bale and Oliver Rando discuss their work on paternal effects in mice (most recent focuses on mothers instead of fathers so this is especially interesting).
“I am also excited to hear Ted Koditschek from Mizzou discuss the history of the classic Lamarckian idea of the “inheritance of acquired characteristics” and how it relates to findings from modern epigenetics,” Shenk said.
Schedule of events
The location of all speakers and affiliated events will be announced at lssp.missouri.edu or on the Life Sciences and Society Program — University of Missouri Facebook page.
6:30 p.m. — Topic of the talk: Sharing epigenetic research with the public. Speaker: Annie Murphy Paul, science writer and author of Origins: How the Nine Months Before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives.
9 a.m. — Topic of the talk: Stress Parents: Maternal and paternal epigenetic programming of the developing brain. Speaker: Tracy Bale, professor of neuroscience and animal biology at the University of Pennsylvania.
10:30 a.m. — Topic of the talk: You are what your father ate. Speaker: Oliver Rando, professor of biochemistry and molecular pharmacology at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.
11:30 a.m. — Topic of the talk: Epigenetic inheritance and evolutionary theory: the resurgence of natural philosophy. Speaker: Massimo Pigliucci, professor of philosophy at the City University of New York.
2:15 p.m. — Topic of the talk: Environment and Autism: Past evidence, current research and future quandaries. Speaker: Irva Hetz-Picciotto, professor of public health sciences at UC Davis.
3:15 p.m. — Topic of the talk: Prenatal stress modifies the impact of phthalates on boys’ reproductive tract development. Speaker: Shanna Swan, professor of preventative medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine.
4:30 p.m. — Panel Session with all Saturday speakers.
9 a.m. — Topic of the talk: DOHaD, epigenetics and cancer. Speaker: Suh-mei Ho, director of the University of Cincinnati Cancer Center, and chair of the department of environmental health.
10:30 a.m. — Topic of the talk: The epigenetics of pediatric cancers. Speaker: Joya Chandra, associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.
11:30 a.m. — Topic of the talk: Before epigenetics: Early ideas about the inheritance of acquired characteristics. Speaker: Ted Koditschek, professor of history at the University of Missouri.
Exhibit running March 5-30 at the Ellis Library Collonnade. Exhibit: Generations: Reproduction, heredity and epigenetics.
1 p.m. March 9, at the Ellis Library Government Documents Section. Topic of the talk: Genes, culture and evolution. Speaker: Karthik Panchanathan, department of anthropology, University of Missouri.
3:30 o.m. March 17, at Jesse Wrench Auditorium. Topic of the talk: Profound global institutional deprivation: the example of the English and Romanian adoptee study. Speaker: Sir Michael Rutter, professor of developmental psychology at the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College in London.
The bridge between public knowledge and the inner-workings of the science community is one that many are reluctant to cross. Sometimes riddled with confusing terms, the most exciting discoveries aren’t always approachable.
The 10th annual MU Life Sciences & Society Symposium began Monday evening with Rebecca Skloot as she spoke to a nearly full house at Jesse Auditorium Monday. Every year the symposium erases the line between community understanding and the discoveries of the scientific community.
Skloot, the New York Times bestselling author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, spoke about the power of science writing in making science more approachable, gave advice to scientists on spreading the word about their discoveries and gave an insight into to the decade of reporting she did for her book. Skloot autographed copies of the book following the talk.
This year’s theme, Decoding Science, speaks to the issue of communicating scientific issues and discoveries with the general public. Skloot said scientists need to keep terms and technicalities basic and exciting.
Jesse Hall was filled with an eclectic mix of community, faculty and students from MU many of which lined up following the talk for nearly 30 minutes of questions.
Throughout the week, the gap between the science community and the public will be bridged with an impressive list of speakers.
The symposium, organized by the Bond Life Sciences Center which houses researchers that represent various schools at the University of Missouri, is a week-long event that features many speakers prevalent in scientific communications.
Other events to catch this week
Tuesday The “Thoughts of Plants” will be uncovered 6 p.m. at Broadway Brewery. The talk, as part of the Science Café speaker series, will be lead by Dr. Jack Shultz, director of the Bond Life Sciences Center.
Wednesday Superhero Science 11 a.m. until noon at the Colonnade in Ellis Library. Superhero submissions will be judged by the spring symposium’s own superhero: “The Antidote.” Dressed in a mask and cape, MU professor Tim Evans’ alter ego, has spicing up the field of toxicology at MU for 12 years.
Thursday James Surowiecki, a contributor to The New Yorker, will speak at 7 p.m. Thursday at Bush Auditorium, Cornell Hall. Free admission and no ticket or registration required.
Saturday All Saturday talks will be held at Jesse Hall.
10:00 a.m. Bill Nye at Jesse Auditorium, doors open at 9:00 a.m. with overflow seating available at the Monsanto Auditorium at the Bond Life Sciences Center. Tickets are sold out. Nye, most well-known for his 1990’s show Bill Nye The Science Guy, has immersed youth in “fun science” by educating in easy-to-understand terms. Nye is one of the pioneers of science communication, trying to make science more approachable by the general public.
12:30 – 1:15 p.m. Chris Mooney is a science journalist and author of Unscientific America, The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science and Reality, and New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science.
1:20 – 2:10 p.m. Dominique Brossard, professor and chair of the Department of Life Sciences Communication at the University of Wisconsin, Brossard studies strategic communication and public opinion in science and risk communication.
2:30 – 3:15 p.m. Liz Neeley, assistant director of Science Outreach for COMPASS, leads communications training for scientists, specializing in social media and multimedia outreach. She previously studied tropical fish evolution.
3:20 – 4:05 p.m. Barbara Kline Pope, the executive director for communications for the National Academy of Sciences, leads the Science & Entertainment Exchange, which connects top scientists with the entertainment industry for accurate science in film and TV programming.
4:10 – 5:00 p.m. A recovering marine biologist, Randy Olson is an independent filmmaker and author of Don’t Be Such a Scientist and Connection: Hollywood Storytelling Meets Critical Thinking. Olsen is a leading proponent of storytelling in science communication. His films include “Flock of Dodos” and “Sizzle,” about evolution and climate change, respectively.