Epigenetics: Bridging Nature and Nurture

"If gene therapy lives up to its promise, parents may someday be able to go beyond weeding out undesirable traits and start actually inserting the genes they want--perhaps even genes that have been crafted in a lab." (Citation 25)

Since Watson and Crick discovered the structure of DNA in 1953 (Citation 8),  sparking the development of genetics and its related fields, people have realized that the molecules that define the individual have enormous potential. With these possibilities, though, controversy and debate have arisen. This section discusses the social, political, and economic implications of epigenetics. However, one ought to note that, as epigenetics is such a new and developing field, it has not moved into the world's spotlight as of yet. As a daughter  field of genetics, though, many of the arguments relating to the parent area apply to this subdivision.

Social Implications

Many of the scientific possibilities presented genetics have offended parts of the population and have sparked intense discussion. Among these is the "designer baby". This refers to the possibility of selecting traits for an offspring via analysis of the sperm and egg. Fertilization then occurs in vitro and the organism is later implanted in the uterus. Currently, this technique is most often applied in order to avoid certain life-threatening diseases, and, in some instances, to select gender (Citation 25). The potential to select genes for an offspring can translate into epigenetics, as it may eventually be possible to select gene expression through epigenetic modification. The Epigenome Network for Excellence acknowledges this, stating "Epigenetics offers us the potential to reprogramme genomes without genetic modification. This new knowledge underlies cloning technologies and the application of stem-cell based therapies, both of which have been the subject of considerable controversy" (Citation 13). This statement aptly illustrates not only the potential of epigenetics, but also its accompanying controversy.  


Potential Ethical & Legal Issues

Epigenetics is still in its infancy.  It is therefore difficult to ascertain exactly what problems it might bring.  Research on epigenetics seems to indicate that lifestyle decisions of parents may cause positive or negative changes in their offspring. Therefore, is it ethical for parents to make decisions that they know will make their child healthier or unhealthier?  Would parents be legally responsible for health issues in their children? (Citation 30)

Poor environmental conditions have a strong link to epigenetic changes.  Could health insurance companies not cover tests or treatments for epigenetic changes caused by environmental conditions? (Citation 30)

Epigenetics raises numerous questions about ethics and legality.  As research and discovery in this field advances, scientists, legal personnel and others will have to make tough decisions about the rights and wrongs of epigenetics.  

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