Nurturing Nature: Epigenetics as a Way to Explore Social Justice

Adam Reitzel, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Biology, UNC Charlotte

Lenora Crabtree, Ph.D. student, Urban Education, UNC Charlotte

In this seminar, we will explore the intersection of social justice and biology through the lens of epigenetics. Since its official discovery in the 1950’s, the concept of DNA as a stable molecule that faithfully transmits information from generation to generation has dominated our thinking and teaching. In recent years, scientists have uncovered that DNA is actually a pliable molecule that undergoes tremendous chemical and structural modifications due to environmental exposure, transformations that may be inherited by future generations. Epigenetics is the field of biology that studies these modifications and how they influence fundamental biological processes including development, physiology, and aging. We will intentionally explore environmentally driven modifications of DNA through the lens of social justice, specifically the roles that race and poverty play in community health.  Using a critical approach, we will examine the potential trans-generational impact of disparities in waste disposal, water treatment and access to food and healthcare. What role does restricted access to healthy food have on an individual’s health, and the health of their descendants?  What is the impact of exposure to environmental pollutants and pesticides on the health of a community over generations? With these questions as our launching point, we will also consider the intersection of race, poverty and socio-scientific issues including eugenics and climate change. Each concept will be examined through the current scientific literature (what we know and don’t know!) and discussions that link social impact and underlying biological mechanisms.

https://academic.oup.com/eep/article/doi/10.1093/eep/dvx011/4061580/Transgenerational-epigenetics-and-environmental