Archive for September, 2013

British Science Festival Newcastle 7-12 September 2013

The Huxley Debate

Epigenetics: Can we modify our genes?

Epigentics is a relatively new field investigating how our genes are modified through our life time and if these changes can be passed on to future generations. Tonight epigenicist Tim Spector and epidiemiologist  George Davey- Smith  will debate if these modifications can be passed down through the generations in humans and how they may or may not impact on disease. This will be the inaugural British Science Festival Huxley Lecture, and will be hosted by Lisa Jardine the incoming President of the British Science Association.

We might think of our DNA as a long string of genes that makes a blue print for our bodies and some would argue even our lives. Genes have been identified that make us more likely to get breast cancer, more likely to be happy, and more likely to be great athletes.  However, genes may not be the whole story.  Epigeneticists are studying how environmental factors during our lives may modify genes, switching them on or off, and wondering how this affects not only our lives but those of our children and future generations.

There has been a great deal of speculation about what implications there may be if we could control our genome through epigenetics. Would you change what you eat, how much you exercise, and whether or not you smoke if you knew how your lifestyle would affect your children, grandchildren and great grandchildren? Could exposure to chemicals in our environment affect the epigenetic legacy we leave to our future generations? Could you take a medication that would change your epigenetics and protect your unborn children from cancer? Some companies are already selling nutritional supplements to augment your epigenetic make up. Some publications (that may be should know better) are saying everything you ever knew about evolution is wrong.

Tim Spector has spent many years looking at identical twins studying the similarities and differences in their life histories. He feels that there are more differences than you might expect in disease and longevity between identical twins who have lived similar lives and have been exposed to similar risks. He wonders if these differences could be explained by epigenetics. The twins have the same genes but they may have been modified in different ways through their lifetimes to make them more or less susceptible to a particular disease.

George Davey-Smith is Director of the MRC Centre for Causal Analyses in Translational Epidemiology and has looked at understanding the causes and alleviation of health inequalities. He thinks the differences in the life courses of twins are more likely to be due to pure chance.  He believes epigenetic modifications exist but he is sceptical that they are transmitted through generations in humans, and thinks they would play a tiny role in the epidemiology of diseases such as obesity, cancer and heart disease even if they do.

At an earlier British Association event, held in Oxford University Museum in 1860 Thomas Huxley argued with Samuel Wilberforce, the Lord Bishop of Oxford, for evolution rather than creationism.  Tonight the differences between the two participants may not be as fundamental as in 1860 but if the press conference this afternoon is anything to go by, the debate will certainly be as passionate!

The Huxley Debate will be held this evening at 17.30 at Northern Stage (Stage 1).