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Your Environment. Your Health.

Environmental Epigenetics

Program Leads

Lisa Helbling Chadwick
Lisa H. Chadwick, Ph.D.
Health Scientist Administrator

Tel (850) 727-7218
lisa.chadwick@nih.gov
Frederick L. Tyson
Fred Tyson, Ph.D.
Health Scientist Administrator

Tel (919) 541-0176
Fax (919) 564-5064
tyson2@niehs.nih.gov

 

Program Description

Our DNA, which we inherit from our parents, stores the information necessary to keep our bodies functioning and determines much about our health status. This information is in the form of genes, and during gene expression the DNA code is translated into proteins that carry out specific cell activities. Factors such as diet, aging, stress, or exposure to chemicals can affect a person’s DNA in multiple ways that influence the development of diseases like cancer or asthma.

Epigenetics is the study of changes in the way information stored in DNA is expressed, without direct modification of the genetic code. Some epigenetic changes are part of normal development and aging, but environmental health scientists are most concerned with studying how environmental factors can cause negative epigenetic changes.

Agouti
These mice are genetically identical, but the mother of the mouse on the left ate a normal mouse diet while pregnant. In contrast, the mother of the mouse on the right ate a diet supplemented with methyl donors while pregnant. The differences in the coat color and weight of these offspring resulted from a dissimilarity in the level of DNA methylation, a type of epigenetic change.

The NIEHS environmental epigenetics program provides funding for a variety of research projects that use state-of-the-art technologies to analyze epigenetic changes caused by environmental exposures. NIEHS-supported researchers use animals, cell cultures, and human tissue samples to pinpoint how epigenetic changes could lead to harmful health effects, and could perhaps, be passed down to the next generation.

The NIEHS also supports research on the possible effects of environmental exposures on future generations through its Transgenerational Inheritance in Mammals After Environmental Exposure program. The NIEHS and the National Institute on Drug Abuse jointly fund the Toxicant Exposures and Responses by Genomic and Epigenomic Regulators of Transcription (TaRGET) Program, which supports research that aims to increase our understanding of how exposures affect and interact with functional and regulatory processes that lead to certain patterns of epigenetic changes.    

Epigenomics research focuses on analyzing epigenetic changes across many genes in a single cell or all the cells in an entire organism. The Roadmap Epigenomics Program is a trans-NIH program funded by the NIH Common Fund and administered by NIEHS and other NIH Institutes and Centers. This program investigates epigenetic changes across genomes and correlates the presence or absence of specific changes with the development of disease. One major goal of the Roadmap Epigenomics is developing a set of reference epigenomes for normal human tissues and cell types for comparison with diseased tissues and cells. Projects supported by the NIEHS in this program are contributing such reference epigenomes and are investigating how epigenetic changes caused by various environmental exposures can lead to disease.

These combined efforts in epigenetics and epigenomics research may profoundly alter the way we understand, diagnose, and treat disease by enhancing our understanding of the influence of environmental factors on epigenetic processes and their subsequent involvement in human health and disease.

Additional Program Contacts

Kimberly A. McAllister, Ph.D.
Kimberly McAllister, Ph.D.
Health Scientist Administrator
530 Davis Dr
Durham, NC 27713
Tel (919) 541-4528
Fax (919) 316-4606
mcallis2@niehs.nih.gov

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