Monday 18 June 2012

Epigenetics and your ancestral development

John Reid has an interesting post on his Anglo-Celtic Connections blog concerning the field of epigenetics, a field of science which a decade ago was almost laughed at - until somebody realised there was actually something to it. The post quotes some new research suggesting that our biological development has been affected by our ancestors' daily routines. To put it in extreme shorthand, it is the nature versus nurture debate.

In the past it was believed that our biological development was purely down to our genes. Epigenetics however, suggests that the impact of our environment can actually directly affect the next generation's development. When I was at the BBC I remember pitching an idea based on this to the Horizon programme's commissioners, which included a good example from the Second World War. In Holland there was a famine during the war which seriously malnourished pregnant mothers, whose babies were born equally malnourished and much smaller than they should have been as a consequence. When those children then grew up and subsequently had their own offspring, despite having completely healthy lifestyles their own children were in fact born equally small in stature - their growth had been affected epigenetically by the stresses endured by their grandparents in the war. 

Occasionally in the past I have found some interesting causes of death for family members during genealogical research, and have often wondered if they were related to each other because of the impact of epigenetics. The prime example that immediately springs to mind was a mining family I once researched where the miners all died of lung complaints. The death records of their children and grandchildren all showed them suffering equally from bronchitis and other lung related complaints, even though many were not involved in mining at all. Is this another instance of epigenetic influence?

DNA is the big show in town on the genealogical science front, but I find this equally fascinating. Definitely an area of study to keep an eye on!

John's post on the study is at


Check out my Scotland's Greatest Story research service
New book: It's Perthshire 1866 - there's been a murder... (from June 12th 2012)

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