Epigenetics and Public Health: Why We Should Pay Attention

Epigenetics and Public Health: Why We Should Pay Attention

In September 2014, one of us (MJK) spoke on the topic of epigenetics at the Annual Meeting of the Association for State and Territorial Health Officials (ASTHO). ASTHO is a national organization representing public health agencies in the United States. ASTHO members formulate and influence public health policy and practice. In the midst of a busy agenda, state health officials were interested in learning about epigenetics as a new and evolving area for public health practice. Why is that?

At the CDC Office of Public Health Genomics, we have been tracking the progress of genomics and related fields and their impact on clinical practice and disease prevention. In our evidence-based table and recent highlights of the year, we have mentioned an increasing number of genomic tests and applications for which evidence-based recommendations exist and can save lives today. Epigenetics so far has not made it on the list!

So what is epigenetics and why is it attracting interest these days? This is obviously a “hot” topic in research and the media. Here are a few recent headlines

Can you inherit experiences? Inside the weird world of epigenetics

You are what you eat, but what about your DNA?

Sperm contains dad’s lifestyle information alongside basic genetic material

Epigenetics: genes, environment and the generation game: “New research claims that environmental factors affect not just an individual’s genes but those of their offspring too. Diabetes, obesity – even certain phobias – may all be influenced by the behavior of our forebears.”

It turns out we all have two “biological codes” that are important in development, health and disease. The genetic code is the sequence of DNA (base pairs) that tells a cell how to build proteins, the essential building blocks of life. More than 99.9% of the genetic code is identical among us, and the 0.1% variation is important in health traits such as height, weight and eye color. Genetic variation is also important in individual susceptibility to various diseases across the life span, including the thousands of rare “genetic diseases” such as sickle cell disease and cystic fibrosis in which single mutations (genetic changes) can have drastic effects on health and disease.