Is epidemiology ready for epigenetics?
+ Author Affiliations
- 1Institute of Genetic Medicine, Newcastle University, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 3BZ and 2MRC Centre for Causal Analyses in Translational Epidemiology (CAiTE), University of Bristol, Bristol, BS8 2BN, UK
The revellers depicted in the painting by the Dutch artist Judith Leyster (1609–60) (Figure 1) will not have given epigenetics a passing thought. Little were they to know that indulgences, such as drinking alcohol and smoking, would be contributing to their ‘exposome’1 and marking their epigenome to potentially compromise their future health. The skeleton proffering an hourglass is perhaps a portent of the perils of such indulgence. Epigenetic alterations have been linked—sometimes tentatively—to a wide array of exposures and health outcomes, from smoking2 and alcohol3,4 to lung cancer5 and psychoses,6 and the field will surely witness a glut of further literature in the near future.
Epigenetics has undoubtedly recently taken the world of medical research by storm,7 offering the promise of prediction, prevention and treatment of a wide spectrum of common complex diseases.8 The current special issue brings together a collection of reviews and articles with epigenetics as a common theme to consider the contribution that epidemiology can make in defining the role of epigenetics in common complex disease, or conversely, to ask the question—is epidemiology ready for epigenetics?
The emergence of epigenetics
The emergence of the modern usage of epigenetics is attributed to the landmark article by Conrad Waddington, reprinted in this issue of the IJE.9 In this article, Waddington asserts that
We certainly need to remember that between genotype and phenotype, and connecting them to each other, there lies a whole complex of developmental processes.Waddington termed this complex the epigenotype.9 In this article, Waddington recognizes that genes are the fundamental regulators of the developmental process, dictating every organism’s developmental trajectory. As Gilbert notes, this was a paradigm-changing idea.10 Perturbation …