The biosocial genome? Interdisciplinary perspectives on environmental epigenetics, health and society

Ruth Müller, Clare Hanson, Mark Hanson, Michael Penkler, Georgia Samaras, Luca Chiapperino, John Dupré, Martha Kenney, Christopher Kuzawa, Joanna Latimer, Stephanie Lloyd, Astrid Lunkes, Molly Macdonald, Maurizio Meloni, Brigitte Nerlich, Francesco Panese, Martyn Pickersgill, Sarah Richardson, Joëlle Rüegg, Sigrid SchmitzAleksandra Stelmach, Paula-Irene Villa

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


In recent years, research on how the human environment and life-style influence gene expression has generated considerable scientific and public interest. Articles in prominent international newspapers with headlines such as “Why your DNA isn’t your destiny” (Time Magazine in 2010) or “Poverty leaves traces in children’s genome” (Süddeutsche Zeitung in 2016) have drawn public interest to the emerging field of environmental epigenetics. It is a sub-division of the much more heterogeneous research field of epigenetics, which aims to understand how interactions between the environment and the genome can lead to epigenetic modifications that affect gene expression. Environmental epigenetics is often heralded as providing a revolutionary perspective on disease etiology, particularly with regard to so-called ‘life-style diseases’ such as cardiovascular disease or diabetes. It is also often presented as a vital new framework for understanding differences in the susceptibility and resilience to mental illness and the long-term damaging effects of a wide variety of environmental factors.
Environmental epigenetics engages with the social context of both individuals and populations. Studies investigate, for example, how socio-economic status, exercise habits, diet or experiences of trauma might influence biological processes at the molecular level. This has created great interest among social scientists and scholars in the humanities as it raises a number of questions at the intersection of the natural sciences, the social sciences and the humanities: for example, how to conceptualize the social environment in a laboratory context. To explore research areas at these intersections and assess the potential social and political implications of environmental epigenetics, international scholars from the life sciences, social sciences and humanities met in January 2017 in Munich, Germany. This article presents some of the main findings from these interdisciplinary discussions. We conclude that environmental epigenetics has great potential for elucidating how human society affects human biology, but we caution against over-simplified translations from social structures to biological processes and vice versa.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1677-1682
Number of pages6
JournalEMBO Reports
Issue number10
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2017

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© 2017 The Authors. This is an author-produced version of the published paper. Uploaded in accordance with the publisher’s self-archiving policy. Further copying may not be permitted; contact the publisher for details.


  • epigenetics
  • gender
  • stigmatisation
  • health inequalities
  • genome expression
  • plasticity

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