After getting a little inside info in our interview with conference organizer Randy Jirtle, we couldn’t wait to hear about how the event turned out. According to our guest correspondent, Rebecca Rancourt, the conference definitely didn’t disappoint, and it even sounds like the after-hours agenda was quite a blast as well. Check out Rebecca’s trip report below:
The Keystone Symposium on Environmental Epigenomics and Disease Susceptibility was held at the scenic Grove Park Inn and Resort in Asheville, North Carolina, March 27th-April 1st, 2011. Over three hundred participants from diverse fields of expertise were in attendance. Some of these backgrounds included epigenetics, epidemiology, developmental biology, computational biology, and various clinical concentrations which made for very interesting discussions.
An exciting aspect of this meeting was the large number of post-doctoral researchers and graduate students intermingling with the well established investigators. The organizers; Randy Jirtle (Duke University, USA), Moshe Szyf (McGill University, Canada) and Frederick Tyson (NIH, USA) put together a great program with talks and posters covering topics such as fetal origins of adult disease susceptibility, epigenetic mechanism of gene regulation, postnatal epigenetic programming of the brain and complex diseases, epigenetic transgenerational inheritance, and mammalian evolution and disease states.
The majority of the presentations covered research previously (and/or newly) published which was nicely summarized and often put in a context set for a broader scientific audience. This meeting generated great discussions with some key points made for the scientific community to consider which this article will try to briefly highlight.
Michael Skinner (Washington State University, USA) discussed the need for clarification of transgenerational inheritance within the field. Transgenerational refers to an effect arising from an in-direct exposure or event, with this in mind, the in utero exposures creating a transgenerational event need to be analyzed at the 3rd filial (F3) generation in females and F2 in males.
This point was also illustrated in Marcus Pembry’s (University College London, UK) presentation on the hypothesis that the non-recombining region of the Y sex chromosome can preferentially “remember” and transmit the environmentally-induced states to the offspring and future generations.
Emma Whitelaw (Queensland Institute of Medical Research, Australia), who also researches transgenerational inheritance, touched on the importance of not ruling out possible Mendelian genetic variations when studying phenotypic outcomes, in some cases the phenotype may not solely come down to epigenetics. A point that was echoed in many discussions on the possible links both classical genetics and epigenetics may have in human health.
Fetal and Evolutionary Origins of Adult Disease Susceptibility
Gudrun Moore (University College London, UK) shared her research on the influence of imprinted genes (a number of which affect developmental growth), in particular PHLDA2, has on birth weight and disease susceptibility. Dr. Moore insightfully discussed how human mechanisms and diseases/phenotypes do not always neatly mimic what is known in the mouse which leads to the need for more thoughtful consideration for results that may go against the “Dogma”.
David Haig (Harvard University, USA) discussed some interesting theories on the relationship that maternal resources and siblinghood (e.g. birth order) may have on the onset of puberty (age of menarche). In the “Helper at the Nest” theory, this refers to the oldest child entering puberty earlier and playing a role with helping mom rear the younger siblings whom themselves may exhibit a delay in maturation. This familial relationship with the age of menarche could lead to the concept that early puberty is selfless, while delayed puberty is selfish. Perhaps paying attention to this aspect of mammalian evolution could help in the understanding of the incidence of early onset puberty.
Epigenetics and BPA
Lots of research was presented on how environmental exposures may influence human development and health. Current interest focuses on Bis Phenol A (BPA) which is found in plastics and what role this has for in utero development and adult health.
Dana Dolinoy’s (University of Michigan, USA) has been investigating BPA exposure with both a dose response animal model (agouti) as well as a human cohort (Egyptian cohort). Dr. Dolinoy summarized the epigenomic data from various animal models, human clinical cohorts, and epidemiological studies indicating that BPA induced alternations vary across doses and species which should be considered in future BPA risk assessment for human health.
Frederica Perera (Columbia University, USA) outlined the exposure studies being conducted in a longitudinal cohort of mothers and children tracking BPA, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) and other environmental-related exposures from in utero to adolescence. Dr. Perera noted that persistence in global methylation is observed between paired cord blood and 3 year old samples.
A portion of the talks focused on epigenetics in neurological disorders and development. Farah Lubin (University of Alabama at Birmingham, USA) showed her research on histone methylation, specifically in the hippocampus and entorhinal cortex, in memory formation. Providing examples of how histone methylation inhibitors in the hippocampus can impair memory, while inhibitors in the entorhinal cortex can enhance memory. Leading to clues of how memory could be improved throughout aging.
A Look Forward in Epigenetics
When thinking about what possible role epigenetic research could play in treating human health issues, several speakers’ future goals included identifying biomarkers which may allow for better characterization of human syndromes. Another example of a treatment avenue could be to utilize the potential of epigenetic states or marks being reversible which may lead to the possibility of drugs that restore or correct a methylation profile. Lousie Laurent (Scripps Research Institute/UCSD, USA) who is researching epigenomic patterns in pluripotent stem cells proposed some possible clinical applications with cell therapy, validation of drug efficacy, generating better disease modeling which could greatly help in understanding epigenetic instability creating potential disease states, she also addressed some issues that could arise from these uses.
As this meeting covered lots of topics and participants with different backgrounds, it seemed fitting that this meeting was brought to a close in a unique way not often seen at these conferences, with lawyer Mark Rothstein’s (University of Louisville School of Medicine, USA) talk on legal and ethical implications of epigenetics, which left the attendants to consider the impact this exciting field of research may have on future policies and to the public (e.g. individual’s rights to their epigenome and lawsuits dealing with harmful exposure leading to transgenerational outcomes).
A Highly Interactive Conference Experience
This meeting was loaded with a wonderfully grand location and an excellent number of participants. A great collaborative atmosphere was seen with the impressive attendance at the poster sessions and the nightly social hour (which stretched much longer) in which many an interesting scientific conversation was witnessed. The meeting closed with an entertaining night of spectacular desserts, music and dancing……yes, you read that right, scientists do dance!
**EpiGenie thanks Rebecca C. Rancourt, PhD. who is a Research Fellow at Harvard Medical School’s School of Public Health/ Brigham Women’s Hospital for providing this conference coverage**