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Cartoon history of epigenetics

A few hundred years before zero, some clever Greeks began to wonder how we developed. How much are we preprogrammed versus environmentally shaped? Over two millenia later, the verdict is still out.

By Brona McVittie :: June 2006


Hippocrates thought that we inherited little bits from all parts of our parents. Aristotle (384-322bc) thought we grew from unformed blobs that developed inside mum because of dad. Other folks thought we were fully-formed to start with


William Harvey (1578-1657) wanted to further explore what Aristotle had put forward. He dissected deer and chicks to understand how an embryo forms. He became convinced that embryos developed gradually from an egg, rather than from tiny fully-formed bodies


Somewhere on a quiet hillside in Austria, a monk was planting peas and watching how parents passed on their features to baby peas. He laid down the rules of inheritance, which are the basis of genetics today. His name was Gregor Mendel (1822-1884)


August Weissmann (1834-1914) and others recognised that genetic information was stored in the nucleus of a cell. In his view cells start with the same information then become more specialised by losing material when they divide.


Hans Spemann (1869-1941) agreed with Weissmann but argued that cells don't lose information; they merely switch it off. He used a strand of his baby's hair to split a salamander egg in two. He got two salamanders. Spemann was the pioneer of the modern technology used for cloning today.


Conrad Waddington (1905-1975) coined the term epigenetics. He thought about development and inheritance in terms of the cross-talk between genetic information and the environment.



James Watson and Francis Crick (1916- 2004) describe the structure of the DNA double helix in terms of the four letters of the genetic alphabet. DNA is recognized as the hereditary genetic material.


Gene sequencing revolution begins. Science takes on the view that we are the sum of our gene sequences.


Epigenetics research flourishes. Scientists realize it's not just our DNA sequence that controls our biological make-up. DNA methylation and histone modifications are recognized as important regulators of gene activity.


The European Commission agrees to fund the Epigenome NoE to promote excellence in epigenetics across Europe.