Epigenetic Changes During Pregnancy

Research Summary

Elizabeth Martin, Ph.D., leads the Epigenetic Responses to Environmental Exposures Group and holds a secondary appointment in the NIEHS Epidemiology Branch. Her group studies how epigenetic reprogramming in mothers during pregnancy is disrupted by exposure to environmental toxicants and its implications for the development of disease in mothers later in life.

Understanding how epigenetic changes due to environmental exposures can cause disease and which individuals are at increased disease risk is a major area of interest in environmental health science. However, a major obstacle is understanding why exposure to the same contaminant across different populations does not result in reproducible epigenetic signatures. Two factors that likely play a role in this lack of concordance between populations are (1) what transcription factors are activated and (2) whether the exposure takes place during a window of epigenetic plasticity, such as the prenatal, pubertal, or pregnancy period.

Post-pregnancy development to later life development, Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals, Changes to a Cell's Normal Development, Increased Breast Cancer Risk
Pregnancy maybe a window of susceptibility during which environmental toxicants can disrupt cellular and tissue development leading to increased disease risk.

The group will examine these factors by studying whether environmental exposures can induce epigenetic change through the activation of transcription factors during the susceptible period of pregnancy, resulting in altered disease risk in a replicable manner.

Major areas of research:

  • Epigenetic reprogramming during pregnancy
  • Disruption of normal epigenetic reprogramming by environmental toxicants
  • Transcription factor-toxicant interactions

Current projects:

  • Epigenetic reprogramming of the mammary gland during pregnancy
  • Endocrine disruptor mediated disruption of epigenetic reprogramming
  • Identification of exposure-associated breast cancer risk signatures in human populations

Martin received her Ph.D. in Environmental Science and Engineering in 2017 from the Gillings School of Global Public Health at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill under the direction of Rebecca Fry, Ph.D. Afterward, she became a postdoctoral researcher in the UNC Curriculum in Toxicology under the direction Shaun McCullough, Ph.D. Martin then joined the NIEHS Eukaryotic Transcriptional Regulation Group, headed by Deputy Chief of the Epigenetics and Stem Cell Biology Laboratory Paul Wade, Ph.D., in 2018. As an NIEHS trainee, she applied for and received a Postdoctoral Research Associate Training (PRAT) Program fellowship sponsored by the National Institute of General Medicine (NIGMS) in 2019. Martin was subsequently awarded a position in the NIEHS Independent Research Scholars (IRS) program, which allowed her to lead the Epigenetic Responses to Environmental Exposure Group.