Epigenetics goes mainstream

I was woken from sleep by this  this morning. The EU are investing 30m Euros (if the currency doesn’t disintegrate beforehand) in a project to understand human epigenetics. Several references in the piece view this as the successor to the Human Genome Project, with the implication that the latter delivered, in medicine at least, a lot less than was promised, as the clip of Francis Collins demonstrates.

There are a number of interesting things about this piece. In the first place, it shows that in my own field of medicine, epigenetics is far from the peripheral set of mechanisms some biologists would appear to imply. Recently, for example, I saw a blog comment that since epigenetic changes “only” appear to persist for a few generations they are of minor importance to evolution. The BBC piece, in contrast, makes them the key to understanding many disease processes and, by extension, life itself.

Then one can also see that if epigenetics are of little interest to evolution, but central to medicine, the claim that evolution is central to every field of biology is confirmed to be untrue. Certainly it’s hard to see what traditional population genetics will contribute to the medical discussion in future years.

Conversely the importance of epigenetics must be a serious challenge to the understanding of evolution itself. It’s interesting that virologist and epigeneticist Nessa Carey featured  prominently in the news piece. Her recent book The Epigenetics Revolution is subtitled “How Modern Biology is Rewriting Our Understanding of Genetics, Disease and Inheritance.” “Rewriting” implies more the relationship of Einstein to Newton than an Extended Synthesis. Carey describes epigenetics in her interview as:

 “Exquisitely tightly controlled modifications to our genes”.

Richard Dawkins wrote in The Selfish Gene:

[Genes] are the replicators and we are their survival machines. When we have served our purpose we are cast aside.

I wonder if school students will ever be asked to “compare and contrast” those two viewpoints, since it might make them question whether evolutionary theory really is as settled as gravity. I also wonder when evolution will come anywhere near explaining how those “exquisitely tight controls” arose in the first place. In the field of medicine it doesn’t matter too much, except by increasing even further the inevitability of teaching it in teleological language.

I was particularly interested that mention was made of chronic pain, since this is a field in which I was involved at the end of my career, when I ran an NHS back clinic. I’m not surprised that Pfizer contributed to the BBC piece – they were genuinely front-runners in the chronic pain field and supported my approach to managing it in the relatively unexplored area of back pain, providing useful feedback and organising valuable symposia. Plug over – they didn’t finance me in any way!

It was at one such symposium that I learned for the first time that there is a strong genetic component to chronic pain, and it’s revealing that this is now being attributed to the epigenome. Over on BioLogos I was in discussion a while ago with someone who had lambasted the bad mechanical design of the back (Christians there, for reasons I don’t really understand, are exceptionally keen to point out examples of what they consider poor biological engineering, I think more to distance God from creation than to blame him directly). I don’t think my professional background persuaded her that the problem, in chronic back pain at least, is more to do with neurophysiological software programming than biomechanical weakness. That’s not too surprising since even in the UK orthopaedic surgeons find the concept hard to grasp.

But considered more generally evolution is predicated on the idea that the fittest genetic makeup will be selected for. The most efficient backs will be the ones with the best genetic coding. Or, I suppose, in the neutral model of evolution the most efficient backs will be just the best of a bad lot. It’s significant, then, that Nessa Carey closes the  news item thus:

“We have, in most cases, perfectly good genetic information in our cells. Our cells just aren’t using it in the right way.”

I’ll leave someone else to show how that’s quite compatible with RM & NS.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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