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Epigenetics calls our understanding of genetic inheritance into question

Date: 10/09/2012

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.

Notes to Editors

For further information, please contact: Danielle Moore-Chick, AHRC: 01793 416021 d.moore-chick@ahrc.ac.uk 

  • BEYOND THE GENE: New Perspectives on Inheritance, 12th September 2012, 6.00 – 8.30pm. The Linnean Society, Burlington House, Piccadilly, London W1J 0BF.
  • A discussion of inheritance and post-genomic science, featuring Jeanette Winterson, acclaimed author of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, Sexing the Cherry and most recently her memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal and Prof. Evelyn Fox Keller (MIT), author of The Century of the Gene, Making Sense of Life and The Mirage of a Space between Nature and Nurture. All are welcome and admission is free. To reserve tickets please contact Sandy White sw17@soton.ac.uk. For more information about this project see Beyond the Gene website
  • This grant was funded under the Science in Culture Exploratory Awards call. Science in Culture is one of four themes currently being developed by the AHRC. For further information please see the Science in Culture section of our website.
  • The Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) funds world-class, independent researchers in a wide range of subjects: ancient history, modern dance, archaeology, digital content, philosophy, English literature, design, the creative and performing arts, and much more. This financial year the AHRC will spend approximately £98m to fund research and postgraduate training in collaboration with a number of partners. The quality and 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.
  • The University of Southampton is a leading UK teaching and research institution with a global reputation for leading-edge research and scholarship across a wide range of subjects in engineering, science, social sciences, health and humanities.

    With over 23,000 students, around 5000 staff, and an annual turnover well in excess of £435 million, the University of Southampton is acknowledged as one of the country's top institutions for engineering, computer science and medicine. We combine academic excellence with an innovative and entrepreneurial approach to research, supporting a culture that engages and challenges students and staff in their pursuit of learning.

    The University is also home to a number of world-leading research centres including the Institute of Sound and Vibration Research, the Optoelectronics Research Centre, the Web Science Trust and Doctoral training Centre, the Centre for the Developmental Origins of Health and Disease, the Southampton Statistical Sciences Research Institute and is a partner of the National Oceanography Centre at the Southampton waterfront campus.


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