Epigenetics 101: How Exposure to Environmental Toxicants Alters Gene Expression and the Development of Disease

May 22, 2014
10:00 am US Eastern Time

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Epigenetics is a term used more and more frequently among those concerned about environmental health. But what the term really means and its implications may still not be well understood to many of us who work on environmental health concerns, much less those we are trying to engage in other sectors. This call was an opportunity to learn the basics of epigenetics as well as about some emerging research and concerns in this field. On this call, we were fortunate to have two speakers who are well versed in epigenetics. First, Dr. Cheryl Walker, Director of the Texas A&M Health Science Center Institute of Biosciences and Technology, provided an overview of the field of epigenetics, including its implications for the field of environmental health and the potential challenges and questions it poses scientists studying gene mutation, expression, and disease. Dr. Walker also discussed her research on how exposure to environmental chemicals during development reprograms gene expression to promote cancer in adulthood. Dr. Michael Skinner, professor in the School of Biological Sciences at Washington State University, then discussed his lab’s research on how environmental toxicants modify cell interactions in the testis and ovary during fetal developments that influences epigenetic programming of the germline. Dr. Skinner also spoke to transgenerational epigenetic inheritance and the extent to which the concept challenges long-held views that epigenetic markers are completely erased in early development.   

Featured Speakers

Cheryl Walker, PhD, is director of the Texas A&M Health Science Center’s Institute of Biosciences and Technology (IBT). Dr. Walker also holds the endowed Welch Chair in Chemistry and a joint position as clinical professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences at Texas A&M University. Dr. Walker has a Ph.D. in cell biology from The University of Texas Health Science Center (Southwestern Medical School) in Dallas. Her research covers the full scope of carcinogenesis and has resulted in an outstanding scientific reputation, noted by her 2010 Cozzarelli Prize for Biological Sciences from the National Academy of Sciences and the Dallas/Fort Worth Living Legend Achievement Award in Basic Research. She is a past-president of both the 6,000-member Society of Toxicology and the Women in Cancer Research of the American Association for Cancer Research. She was also elected a member of the Academy of Toxicological Sciences and a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Currently she servers on the Board of Scientific Advisors (BSA) of the National Cancer Institute (NCI).

MichaelSkinnerMichael Skinner, PhD is a professor in the School of Biological Sciences at Washington State University.  He did his BS in chemistry at Reed College in Portland Oregon, his PhD, in biochemistry at Washington State University and his Postdoctoral Fellowship at the C.H. Best Institute at the University of Toronto. He has been on the faculty of Vanderbilt University and the University of California at San Francisco. Dr. Skinner’s research is focused on the investigation of gonadal growth and differentiation, with emphasis in the area of reproductive biology. His current research has demonstrated the ability of environmental toxicants to promote the epigenetic transgenerational inheritance of disease phenotypes due to abnormal germ line epigenetic programming in gonadal development. Dr. Skinner established and was the Director of the Washington State University and University of Idaho Center for Reproductive Biology (CRB) since its inception in 1996. The CRB has over 90 faculty and is one of the largest reproductive sciences research Centers in the world. Dr. Skinner also established and was the Director of the Center for Integrated Biotechnology (CIB). The CIB was established in 2002 and has over 170 active research faculty members. In 2008 he stepped down at Director of the Centers to focus his efforts on his research. His research has been highlighted in BBC, PBS and Smithsonian documentaries and selected as one of the top 100 discoveries in 2005 and 2007 by Discover. In 2013 he received the American Ingenuity Award from the Smithsonian.

The call was moderated by Elise Miller, MEd, Director, CHE.