Re-thinking the Epigenome: Research, Risk and Responsibility in Postgenomic Times

By Prof Jeffrey Craig, Co-Lead, SSN Healthy Futures Theme

In June 2022, I was lucky enough to be supported by the SSN to attend the conference “Re-thinking the Epigenome: Research, Risk and Responsibility in Postgenomic Times” in Munich, Germany. My area of research is epigenetics, the molecular “tags” on our DNA that switch genes on and off, or more poetically, the musicians that play the symphony of life on our genes. I thought I knew most of the researchers in the field until I met Maurizio Meloni, now at Deakin, five years ago. Through Maurizio, I discovered a parallel universe of Science and Technology Studies (STS) scholars, who examine the creation, development, and consequences of epigenetic technology in their historical, cultural, and social contexts. However, the scientists and STS scholars had rarely mixed. Given that the Munich conference intended to change this, I jumped at the chance to attend.

The conference was held the headquarters of the Carl Friedrich von Siemens Foundation, a beautiful building next to the historical Nymphenburg Castle not far from the centre of Munich. I was one of only three lab-based researchers amongst the 30 or so attendees, although I noted that a handful of the STS scholars had come from a lab-based background. The speakers ranged from PhD students to the big names of the field, including Sarah S. Richardson (Harvard University), Mark Hanson (University of Southampton), Martha Kenney (San Francisco State University) and Ruth Müller (Technical University of Munich).

I got a lot out of attending this conference. It was great to hear perspectives from disciplinary backgrounds and approaches from outside my comfort zone, such as critical social sciences and ethnography. I found that the STS scholars have a very broad “real-world” view of the issues related to epigenetics and epigenetic testing, such as those related to technical, ethical, and social implications. It made me reflect more about my own motivations, rationales, and ultimate aims in perusing my research projects. It also made me think about how I have presented what we know and what we don’t know about epigenetics and human health, and how I might characterise these fields of knowledge for future audiences.

At the conference, I presented the research of my former Masters’ student Fiona Lynch, whose aim was to understand the public’s current view of epigenetics and related concepts in order to provide a baseline for further research and to assist in the development of public-facing resources. Through an online survey of 391 participants, Fiona found that just over half the people surveyed had heard of the term “epigenetics” and that three quarters could provide at least one element of its definition. Age, education levels, and parental status were the major factors influencing this knowledge. Fiona conducted a qualitative analysis of the reasons for ordering a hypothetical epigenetic test to measure a future offspring’s risk for chronic diseases. She found that many people are already thinking about the legal and ethical implications of such tests, would take a test out of love for their children, and would be persuaded to do so if interventions were available. I received constructive feedback on my talk that I will integrate into future studies.

Throughout the conference, we had a lot of time for discussion and I enjoyed talking about how we could extend our interdisciplinary dialogues for mutual benefit. We agreed to organise more interdisciplinary sessions at epigenetics conferences and to incorporate multiple perspectives in our future talks and papers.  I congratulate the local organising committee Ruth Müller, Michael Penkler, Sophia Rossmann and Georgia Samaras for organising such a great conference.