Epigenetic changes modify the way genetic information is expressed without directly changing the genetic code stored in DNA. Although some epigenetic changes are part of normal development and aging, environmental health scientists are most concerned with understanding how environmental factors can cause epigenetic changes that lead to health problems or disease.
Epigenetic changes likely play an important role in development and are thought to be involved in a wide range of diseases and disorders, including autoimmune and neurodevelopmental disorders, cardiovascular disease, and cancer.
What NIEHS is Doing
Scientists funded through a variety of NIEHS research programs are working to better understand the link between environmental exposures and epigenetic regulation of gene expression and how these interactions may affect human health and disease. NIEHS-funded researchers are using state-of-the-art technologies to analyze epigenetic changes caused by exposure to heavy metals, air pollution, tobacco smoke, endocrine-disrupting chemicals such as bisphenol A, pesticides, phthalates, and other contaminants. They use animals, cell cultures, human tissue samples, and population-based studies to pinpoint how epigenetic changes might lead to harmful health effects, which could perhaps be passed on to future generations.
Combined efforts in environmental epigenetics 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. NIEHS funds several research programs aimed at increasing our understanding of how the environment affects epigenetic processes:
- The Population-Based Model Organism Research for G x E Exploration in Complex Disease Outcomes program supports research using population-based model organism resources to investigate the interplay between environment, genetics, and epigenetics to better understand host susceptibility to environmental exposures relevant to human health and disease.
- The Transgenerational Inheritance in Mammals After Environmental Exposure (TIME) program supports research on the potential effects of environmental exposures on future generations.
- The Toxicant Exposures and Responses by Genomic and Epigenomic Regulators of Transcription (TaRGET) Program 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.
- The Roadmap Epigenomics Program, a trans-NIH program funded by the NIH Common Fund and administered by NIEHS and other NIH Institutes and Centers, investigates epigenetic changes across genomes and correlates the presence or absence of specific changes with the development of disease.
For additional information on what NIEHS epigenetics grantees are doing, visit our Who We Fund webpage.
Program Lead for TaRGET, Animal, Basic, and Mechanistic Research
Frederick L. Tyson, Ph.D.
Health Scientist Administrator
P.O. Box 12233Mail Drop K3-15Durham, N.C. 27709
Program Lead for Gene-Environment Interactions Research