Myths, Mysteries and Molecules

Myths, Mysteries and Molecules

DNA is the recipe for life, containing all the instructions to make you, you.  But, is DNA your only destiny? Can the Genome explain all diseases? Can you change your genes? And how does your lifestyle affect your future children?  These are just some of the questions that were explored by a panel of scientific experts during an interactive public event, organised by the Babraham Institute in conjunction with the European Community funded EpiGeneSys network ( on Tuesday 4th December.

This event introduced the topic of Epigenetics to the public and facilitated discussion and debate with an audience of over 150 adults, teachers and students alike.  On the panel were: Professor Adrian Bird, Group Leader at Wellcome Trust Centre for Cell Biology; Dr Leonie Ringrose, Group Leader Institute of Molecular Biotechnology; Professor Wolf Reik Head of Epigenetics Strategic Programme at the Babraham Institute and Dr Nessa Carey, Head of Strategic Research Partnerships Epigenetics, Pfizer.  The event was chaired by Dr Jef Grainger Head of Bioscience for Health at the BBSRC. 

The Babraham Institute receives strategic funding (a total of £23.1M in 2012-13) from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) to deliver its innovative and world-leading research into the molecular mechanisms that underlie normal cellular processes and functions throughout development and the ageing process. 

“Myths, molecules and mysteries” was suitable for anyone with an interest in science and was fully subscribed within days. The Director of the Babraham Institute, Professor Michael Wakelam, commented, “We regularly organise public engagement events and are very pleased to open the debate on epigenetics.  At Babraham, we believe it is important to discuss our research with non-scientific audiences. Epigenetics is a relatively novel scientific area and not fully covered in school curriculum and so it is important that bring this subject to people’s attention.  Nevertheless, a number of recent media reports have briefly referred to epigenetic change without properly explaining the subject. This event will explain what epigenetics is and how it has to potential to affect individuals and future generations.”

Introducing the science, Prof Wolf Reik explained; “Our genome contains much of the essential information for how our body develops and functions. How the genetic programme unfolds depends in part on regulated expression of the 20,000 or so genes that code for proteins, which are important for cell and organ function. Gene expression programmes that define cell and tissue differentiation pathways are set up early during development of an embryo, and this is helped by ‘epigenetic’ information attached to the genome.”

Wolf continues, “Epigenetic marks are chemical groups or certain proteins that are attached to DNA and programme it to function in particular ways, often for years. The epigenetic marks can also depend on environmental or nutritional factors particularly those encountered early in life. Finally, epigenetic information in our bodies degrades during the ageing process together with declining function of organ systems.”

At Babraham, scientists study how epigenetic information is introduced into the genome during early development of an organism, which can in part depend on environmental or nutritional factors acting through cell signalling pathways. The main interest is in how epigenetic information is propagated throughout life and affects the function of important organs such as the placenta, the heart, or the brain and behaviour. Remarkably, epigenetic information can be removed from the genome in a process called epigenetic reprogramming which occurs naturally in germ cells or early embryos, but this can also be achieved experimentally. This provides a rationale for potentially removing harmful epigenetic marks associated with ageing or diseases.

Babraham Institute’s Knowledge Exchange Manger Linden Smith commented, “This event will introduce novel and potentially revolutionary concepts to lay audiences. Alongside the panel discussion, most importantly there will be the opportunity for the scientific community to listen to people's views. The “speed dating session” for example, is designed to encourage interaction between scientists and non-scientists Through this and other public engagement activities, Babraham is able to consider the wider social and political aspects surrounding its research.” “Myths, Molecules and Mysteries” took place on Tuesday 3rd December 2013: 7-9pm at University Arms Hotel in Cambridge.

CONTACT Linden Smith Knowledge Exchange Manager Email: Tel:       +44 (0)1223 496260 Fax:      +44 (0)1223 496002