Taking back Epigenetics

If I’m good at anything, it’s looking into one topic and then getting distracted by something else during my search. In a recent case, I was scouring the literature on growth and life history. One ribald thing led to another, and next thing I know I’ve stumbled upon Gunter Wagner’s recent review of the book Epigenetics: Linking Genotype and Phenotype in Development and Evolution. WTF is epigenetics, you ask? That’s actually a pretty good question (see here). In the past several years, the term has most often been associated with the causes/effects of structural modifications to chromatin (the DNA-containing stuff that makes up chromosomes). For sure, coincident with Wagner’s review, a paper in last week’s Nature Reviews Genetics defines epigenetics as “the study of mitotically and/or meiotically heritable changes in gene function that cannot be explained by changes in DNA sequence.” (Feil and Fraga 2012).

This is an extremely narrow focus for a term that was originally meant to be about basically everything besides genes that contribute to an organism’s phenotype (this idea was developed by the great, rather underrated, 20th century biologist Conrad Waddington). Lotsa epigenetics research by the narrow definition (i.e. modifications to histones and chromatin) focuses on how cells – not organisms – retain their identity/function (or, phenotype). Epigenetics in the narrow sense are important determinants of an organism’s phenotype, but these alone are insufficient to understand how and why organisms’ become the way they are. Yes, the narrow definition leaves room for environmental influences on gene expression (though “environment” could refer to the state of affairs within a cell or an organism, in addition to the outside world). But it nevertheless imparts agency solely to genomes in affecting an organism becomes.

And this is what the aforesaid book and review are about. Wagner asks, “what would be lost if the original perspective of epigentics [as defined by Waddington] was lost to science?” This is important because an organism is not simply a robotic readout of its genes, but people cannot seem to shake this centuries-old biological determinism.

Is that a homunculus
in your [sperm’s]

In the early days of ‘modern’ (or let’s say ‘recent’) biology, there was a popular idea of “Preformationism,” that animals grew from these pre-formed miniature versions of themselves (homunculi) in germ cells. It did not take long for this idea to be quashed, but the underlying idea persisted. Wagner recounts, “With the rise of genetics during the 20th century, however, a new form of quasi-preformism arose, basically replacing the old homunculus with the genome, whereas the developmental process creating the phenotype was put in a black box” (emphasis mine). [See Gilbert et al. (1996) for a nice historical overview describing how the rise of population genetics in the early 20th century left embryology and developmental biology by the wayside of the Modern Evolutionary Synthesis]

This latent desire to essentialize biology to some singular determinant (be it an homunculus or a gene) is something people just can’t get away from. Srsly, there’s a persistent sentiment in biology that Real Science is only the high-profile, lab-coated work in genetics. Along these lines, even I adopted the recently popular narrow view of “epigenetics” a while back when I dated a woman who worked at an epigenetics lab, in hindsight probably so I would sound more like a capital-S Scientist (below).

Hipster scientist. H3S10 phosphorylation correlates with 
decreased levels of heterochromatin, possibly regulating
chromosome condensation (Chenet al 2008). Image: bit.ly/zEfPaq

Of course, genes code for how a cell should behave, but we have this tendency to want to extrapolate from the cell to the organism, and this is where developmental biology becomes a critical link. And this is what the new Epigenetics book is about (so far as I can tell, I haven’t yet had a chance to read it all).

It’s abundantly clear that phenotypes arise out of an inextricably complex series of interactions – between genes, proteins, cells, tissues, environments, etc. These interactions do not occur solely at the genetic (or narrow-sense epigenetic) level. Developmental biology helps ‘connect the dots’ between genes and morphology, but cannot do so by focusing solely on genes and chromatin.


Chen, E., Zhang, K., Nicolas, E., Cam, H., Zofall, M., & Grewal, S. (2008). Cell cycle control of centromeric repeat transcription and heterochromatin assembly. Nature, 451 (7179), 734-737 DOI: 10.1038/nature06561

Feil, R., & Fraga, M. (2012). Epigenetics and the environment: emerging patterns and implications. Nature Reviews Genetics DOI: 10.1038/nrg3142

Gilbert, S. (1996). Resynthesizing Evolutionary and Developmental Biology. Developmental Biology, 173 (2), 357-372 DOI: 10.1006/dbio.1996.0032

Hallgrímsson B and Hall BK, eds. 2011. Epigenetics: Linking Genotype and Phenotype in Development and Evolution. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Wagner, G. (2011). Epigenetics in all its beauty Trends in Ecology & Evolution DOI: 10.1016/j.tree.2011.09.003


One thought on “Taking back Epigenetics

  1. Nice Post! I think you're pointing towards some of the major problems in modern biology.What makes me sad is that the notion of Genetics being the only real science in biology actually destroys knowledge, because it's affecting the way how Universities replace older Professors, how they assign newly created positions and how they build new programs.It's a sad thing to watch, because I think there's so much to learn if you would be able to combine all those different parts of biology into one big "thing".

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