What might be some challenges to proving occurrence of epigenetic inheritance (inheritance of epigenetic changes within the genome)?

Epigenetics, or the study of heritable changes to the non-DNA portion of the genome, is a new field within the study of genetic inheritance. We are increasingly becoming aware that the epigenome plays a large role in determining how the genetic code itself is expressed.

The epigenome can be modified due to environmental factors, such as type and amount of food, parental care, trauma, and exposure to certain chemicals. Recent studies have shown links between parental life experiences and changes to the epigenome in offspring. In particular, this phenomenon has been studied in women who experience starvation during pregnancy (especially during early pregnancy) and resulting epigenetic changes in these offspring. The beginning section of chapter 11 highlights the epigenetic effects of starvation on the physical and mental attributes in the resulting children of women who were pregnant during the Dutch hunger winter. Similar effects on children and grandchildren have also been found in other such instances of parental trauma. See the following articles for other examples:

Increased occurrence of diabetes in children whose parents starved during the Cambodian Khmer Rouge regime: http://www.popsci.com/article/science/how-nutrition-one-generation-can-change-genetics-next

Altered stress hormones in children born of Holocaust survivors: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/descendants-of-holocaust-survivors-have-altered-stress-hormones/

Epigenetic changes in children born of smoking mothers: http://news.sciencemag.org/biology/2014/07/smoking-mothers-may-alter-dna-their-children

Discussion questions:

1. What might be some challenges to proving occurrence of epigenetic inheritance (inheritance of epigenetic changes within the genome)?

2. How might the potential for epigenetic inheritance raise ethical issues for people thinking about having children?

3. Epigenetic changes continuously occur throughout one’s lifetime based on environmental conditions and lifestyle choices. How might you use this knowledge going forward in your own life?

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