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Epigenetics and environmental exposures
  1. Richard A Stein
  1. Correspondence to Dr Richard A Stein, Department of Molecular Biology, Lewis Thomas Lab 320, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ 08544, USA; ras2{at}


It is becoming increasingly apparent that genetic factors are inadequate to fully explain many processes that shape development and disease. For example, monozygotic twin pairs, despite sharing identical DNA sequences, are often discordant for many traits and diseases, indicating that the same genotype can give rise to distinct phenotypes. This points towards the involvement of additional factors that cannot be explained solely by the sequence of the genome. Epigenetic modifications, defined as heritable changes that do not alter the nucleotide sequence, emerge as key factors that regulate chromatin structure and gene expression and, together with genetic factors, provide the mechanistic basis to understand the biological effects of various classes of environmental exposures. Epigenetic mechanisms explain the ability of certain chemical compounds to initiate biological perturbations that can lead to malignancy, despite being weak mutagens or lacking mutagenic activity altogether—a view that challenges old beliefs and opens new avenues in public health. The field of epigenetics also explains the causal link between certain infectious diseases and cancer, a relationship that was first observed over a century ago and was initially discounted, then fell into oblivion and more recently re-emerged as an important concept in biology. A key feature that distinguishes epigenetic modifications from genetic changes is their reversible nature. This provides exciting prophylactic and therapeutic perspectives, some of which already materialised with the approval of the first drugs that modulate the epigenetic machinery, reinforcing the idea that our genes are not our destiny.

  • Epigenetics
  • environmental exposures
  • endocrine disruptors
  • infectious diseases
  • chromatin organisation
  • gene expression
  • endocrinology
  • environmental health
  • medicine
  • occupational

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  • Provenance and peer review Commissioned; externally peer reviewed.