Unfortunately, given space constraints, Motluck wasn’t able to offer much nuance. She uses the same “on-and-off switch” analogy that most journalists do, but as a Washington Post story explained, it is often not that simple; without going to either extreme, epigenetic changes can also increase or decrease the amount of expression in a specific set of genes like a volume knob. The article also offered a synopsis of the knob’s mechanics:
Epigenetic changes are basically changes in the structure of the DNA that occur when the cell divides and the DNA is replicated. These changes interfere with the ability of DNA to be transcribed, or send messages out to the rest of the body…
For more specifics, the Web site for the PBS show Nova has a wonderful page discussing some of the animal-and human-impacts of epigenetics. Nova also posted a thirteen-minute segment from its broadcaston its Web site; a video animation from that clip, showing how methylation and other epigenetic processes work, is superb.
Science News also has a webpage that provides many resources for understanding the various aspects of epigenetics. This is an incredible resource for any journalist who needs a place to get started.
The study of epigenetics is cool stuff. But as with stories about DNA, it is easy for the press to get carried away and make complex biological processes appear simple and well explained-when the reality of the situation is, in fact, the opposite.
It is a field of study that will probably produce a growing trove of stories and a greater understanding of how genetics and the environment combine to impact biological development and disease. Every once in awhile, however, journalists need to pull back, as they did when the science was first cropping up in the media ten years ago, and remind readers of its basic tenets and definitions. Because despite the fact that reporters still call this a “new” field of research, it only seems that way because journalists and others haven’t done enough to explain it. And hopefully, in applying a wider perspective, journalists will avoid the temptation to use epigenetic explanations as a cure-all for everything we don’t understand about our own biology and upbringing (like what causes autism). Epigenetics greatly expands this understanding, but as it stands now, we’re just starting to figure out how the genome, the epigenome, and the environment interact to produce us.
Epigenetics need not sound like magic-and readers deserve to get stories explaining the science behind the field. It’s something many of us were never taught in school.