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Beyond the gene

A project is bringing together researchers from the humanities and the sciences to examine a potentially world-changing new area of study.

Genetics holds a special place in the popular imagination. Even for those with only a passing acquaintance with the intricacies of DNA, the gene has become an integral part of public discourse on issues of identity and inheritance, fuelling fierce debates over racial and gender determinism, and promising medical breakthroughs.

What is epigenetics?

Epigenetics literally means ‘above the genome’. Professor Karen Temple uses a neat analogy to explain the difference between epigenetics and genetic study: “When you want to fill a room with light, you look at your lightbulb and check that it’s working — that is analogous to doing genetic study to look at whether the DNA is formed directly. But in turning the light on, you also have to have the switch on. Effectively, epigenetics is the switching mechanism, and whether the wires are right, whether the actual switch is pressed on or not.”

So what happens when a relatively new scientific field threatens to force a rethink of this genetic paradigm that has dominated twentieth century thinking? This is the focus of Southampton University’s recent cross-disciplinary project. Funded by an exploratory grant from the AHRC, Beyond the Gene brings together researchers from the humanities and the sciences to examine the cultural and social implications of a potentially world-changing science: epigenetics.

On a simple level, epigenetics is the study of biological processes that can switch genes on and off, producing changes in gene activity without altering the DNA structure. Some of these changes may even be passed through generations. If we’ve become used to thinking of our genes as a fixed blueprint, epigenetics shows that the process of human development is in fact more dynamic — and more open to environmental influences.

“Epigenetics makes it all so interesting, biologically speaking, because it means that the environment in which you’re growing up might be just as important as the genes that you’ve got,” explains research team member Professor Karen Temple, Professor of Medical Genetics and clinician. Research has uncovered epigenetic causes of certain rare diseases, and as technology develops, epigenetics may well come to explain more common conditions, including some cancers.

Professor Clare Hanson
Professor Clare Hanson

Through workshops, discussion groups and public events, Beyond the Gene allows participants from a wide range of disciplines, academic methodologies and backgrounds to share their work and perspectives on this new science. What has emerged so far is that the cultural implications are considerable. “There’s a massive story here in terms of the implications of unravelling the notion of the power of genetic inheritance,” says Professor Clare Hanson, Principal Investigator on Beyond the Gene and member of Southampton’s Humanities faculty. “What are families bound by, if there are looser biological family ties?”

Looking at recent adoption memoirs by writers including Jackie Kay, AM Holmes and Jeanette Winterson as part of the project, Hanson has already found indications of a cultural shift away from the dominance of the gene. “Writers are picking up on the altering of the angle of vision, the focus on environment and the attenuating of the explanatory power of the gene,” argues Hanson. “So it’s a much more diffused, complex and holistic picture of how we come to be who we are.” Indeed, Jeanette Winterson was a speaker at a public event organised by the project, as well as noted scientist and professor of science Evelyn Fox-Keller.

In terms of the potential social impact, an important theme is the role of the environment in human development. “One of the key things we are talking about is that epigenetics takes you away from the emphasis on the individual, which is so characteristic of the focus on the gene, and it draws attention to the power of the environment that we collectively make, affecting the health, development and qualities of future generations,” says Hanson.

Given the potential social and cultural ramifications of epigenetics, managing public understanding is of great importance. The Beyond the Gene project looks at how scientists and those in the humanities can work together to avoid media misunderstandings and hysterical headlines. “I think epigenetics may be very important in deciding issues such as cancer risk, chronic disease risk and obesity. It could be something that really does get taken up by the public, but you want this to happen in a sensible way, rather than as something too simplistic,” says Temple. “Scientists who are trying to explain their work have got a huge amount to learn from the humanities.”

Bringing together academics and artists from such different disciplines is not without challenges. “The main problem is one of vocabulary. What do we understand when we say things to each other and how do we open up what is meant?” points out poet and artist Allen Fisher, who contributed a paper to one of the project’s workshops. Fisher, who has a longstanding interest in science, explains that when it comes to presenting their work, many of the scientists he encounters are naturally more interested in data and communication than in aesthetic judgment.

Promoting intellectual exchange and mutual understanding is key: “The artists need to understand what is meant by epigenetics, what is beyond the gene, and reciprocally, the scientists need to understand that data and communication isn’t all they can use as their process,” says Fisher. One of the main strands of the project involves looking at the ways in which humanities can contribute to creating new metaphors to aid public understanding of scientific advances. “What unites people in science and the humanities is that we’re interested in metaphors and narratives,” says Hanson. “There are lots of narratives and metaphors in science – it’s the easy way to paint the picture.”

Temple is keen to point out epigenetic studies do not imply the gene is redundant. “The gene really does matter. It is a code that starts the process off,” she says. “But we have this image of the gene of being the master controller, and it’s not like that; it’s one little component in the whole process.” Just how much epigenetics will ultimately contribute to medicine and society will depend on advances in technology. However, Temple predicts: “Epigenetics is here to stay.”

Article by Hannah Davies

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