Epigenetics: research explores policy risks

Research news
09 August 2018

Epigenetics and the notion of plasticity have changed the way we think about human development. Deakin’s new ARC Future Fellow Maurizio Meloni is exploring the moral landscape and policy implications for populations in three countries.

The rise of epigenetics and theories of developmental origins of health and disease since the turn of the 21st century have shifted our notions of biological fixedness to ideas of plasticity and “impressionability” of biological material.

Deakin’s new Australian Research Council Future Fellow Associate Professor Maurizio Meloni will investigate how epigenetics – the science of how environmental factors switch genes on or off – is reshaping our understandings of the body, heredity and biological plasticity in the Global South.

Associate Professor Meloni is a social theorist based within the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation. He is one of two Deakin researchers to receive a prestigious Future Fellowship this month, with Dr Timothy Clark, from the School of Life and Environmental Sciences, to investigate what can be done to mitigate the shrinking of fish and other aquatic organisms due to rising ocean temperatures.

“The environment, which includes factors like toxins, food or even socio-economic status, has been proven to have direct effects on our genome or genetic makeup,” said Associate Professor Meloni.

“With epigenetics, it is as if we are discovering exactly how the environment around us can shape who we are as individuals.

“Of particular interest for my Fellowship is understanding what lasting consequences the maternal environment, for example, maternal malnutrition, stress or smoking, has on present and future health outcomes for expectant mothers, as well as young children, and how the resulting focus on the maternal body may lead to new types of regulation, medical surveillance and even stigmatisation.”

The project will be the first of its kind to focus on the social implications of epigenetics outside of solely-Western contexts, using the case studies of Australia, India and South Africa to improve understanding of the effect of the environment on our genes and investigate how this knowledge is being used by governments and other bodies to improve health outcomes.

Associate Professor Meloni’s project, “Impressionable Bodies: Epigenetic Models of Plasticity in the Global South,” is part of a growing field of studies in epigenetics seeking to address persistent social problems, from racial disparities in health, to the obesity epidemic and from the unresolved legacies of historical trauma, to urban violence.

“Epigenetics is contributing to a rewriting of the human body as permeable and flexible right down to the core of who we are – our genetic makeup – and therefore extremely vulnerable to new risks, but also, conversely, to potential positive interventions,” said Associate Professor Meloni.

“Epigenetics is invoked by experts seeking solutions to enduring social problems, including the legacy of racism in South Africa, diabetes in urban India and Aboriginal health in Australia. This project will explore whether and how epigenetics is taken up in social policy discourse and what the potential implications are for those vulnerable groups.”

The highly-competitive Future Fellowships scheme supports research in areas of critical national importance by giving outstanding mid-career researchers incentives to conduct their research in Australia.

Associate Professor Meloni joined the Alfred Deakin Institute earlier this year as a leader in the field of social studies of science, which has been identified as a key area for research growth at Deakin, particularly as a means of bridging the divide between the sciences and humanities and social sciences, which acts as a barrier to solving the major challenges facing our world.

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