Epigenetic Mechanisms and Inheritance of Acquired Susceptibility to Disease
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2016 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.. Poverty, conflict, chemical contaminants, and substance abuse are examples of environmental conditions that are associated with malnutrition, stress, vulnerability to obesity, cancer, psychiatric and other diseases, and diminished life expectancy. We have come to expect that conditions such as these result in deleterious consequences for target populations. However, what if the effects of these conditions transcend generations? What if grandparents' adverse life experiences influence health and disease susceptibility of their grandchildren or even great-grandchildren? What are the implications for the practice of medicine and social justice? Evidence from human and animal studies in the rapidly growing field of transgenerational epigenetics suggests that the inherited consequences of adverse ancestral life experiences are real. Biology can be programmed in one generation to produce long-lasting, multigenerational maladaptation. Periods of embryonic development and epigenetic programing, which modify the output of genes, are specifically vulnerable to environmental perturbations. This chapter discusses the somewhat checkered history of enquiry into the heritability of acquired traits, along with more recent experimental and epidemiological data that validates the phenomenon of transgenerational epigenetics. Last, we focus on specific examples of environmental perturbations, diet, exposure to toxic chemicals, and addiction that can be modeled in the laboratory, to show how transgenerational epigenetic mechanisms may underlie human susceptibility to disease.