Introducing Epigenetics: A graphic field guide for those trying to navigating a sea of information
Nicholas Staropoli| Epigenetics Literacy Project | March 06, 2017

When it comes to communicating epigenetics, everything falls into two categories. It’s either cartoonish and lacks any depth or it’s overly complex so that only an expert in the field could understand and appreciate it. No one is quite hitting that middle ground and we need that.

That’s what writer Cath Ennis told me a few weeks ago when we chatted about the current state of epigenetics communication. Ennis, who serves as an advisor for the ELP, has a new book out on March 14 titled “Introducing Epigenetics: A Graphic Guide.” The book, which features illustrations by designer Oliver Pugh, hits exactly the right tone and level Ennis says the field so desperately needs.

The book is structured in a series of essays that span numerous topics in epigenetics, such as history, modern understanding, classic experiments in the field, what the modifications are and how they interact, how the field fits into health and disease (particularly cancer), inheritance and epigenetics and pseudoscience. The structures may seem choppy, but it allows the reader to target areas of personal interest.

Along the way, Pugh deftly blends humor and education into his graphics to help make the field and its major players come alive for the reader.

While none of the essays dive particularly deep into any particular issue, they whet the reader’s appetite about each corner of epigenetics, while also serving to frame issues in the field. In this way, “Introducing Epigenetics: A Graphic Guide,” is a necessary starting pointing for anyone who is new to epigenetics.

Many do not realize or appreciate the awkward phase epigenetics is in and thus they are prone to misunderstanding or misstating findings in the field. But Ennis does an excellent job of explaining how epigenetics fits in as a subset of the fields of molecular biology and gene regulation. In fact, in the first ten pages, epigenetics and epigenetic changes are sparsely discussed, which should emphasize to the reader that this science has not trumped previous dogma on gene activity. Epigenetics is merely a piece of a larger puzzle.

The reality is that there is a broad spectrum of opinions about epigenetics, ranging from the purely pseudoscientific (e.g. your thoughts can stop or give you cancer) to believing the field to have little significance in the grand scheme of gene regulation to believing the theory of evolution needs to be rewritten because of epigenetics. Ennis does not shy away from some of these controversial ideas but does make sure to place the appropriate disclaimers.

For example, when discussing epigenetic inheritance, Ennis takes the time to explain to the reader why it’s is difficult to have certainty, writing that “one reason for the controversy is that it’s difficult to distinguish genuine epigenetic inheritance from the effects of exposures in the womb or during early childhood.” Later, she again strikes the right balance between discussing what scientists have found and why there is doubt about the findings:

The sense of caution that surrounds this field is heightened further by the existence of many unanswered questions, including those about the actual mechanism of inheritance. Researchers have found correlations between certain traits that are thought to be affected by epigenetic inheritance and DNA methylation changes in specific genes, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that the two phenomena are directly related.

She again strikes this tone when concluding the book, arguably its strongest section:

Scientists like to joke that epigenetics can and will explain everything. Unfortunately, some people take the joke a little too seriously: the field of epigenetics as a whole is particularly susceptible to over-interpretation, unrealistic hype and even deliberate misrepresentation. Experts and the public alike therefore need to exercise a degree of caution when it comes to claims about epigenetics.

My most substantial criticism is that the book does not open with this integral warning. (Actually, I wish most epigenetics articles opened with that message.)

Introducing Epigenetics: A Graphic Guide by Cath Ennis and illustrated by Oliver Pugh, an Icon Books publication is available now in the UK and on March 14 in the US. 

You can read an excerpt from the book that ran on ELP here.

Nicholas Staropoli is the director of the Epigenetics Literacy Project. He has an M.A. in biology from DePaul University and a B.S. in biomedical sciences from Marist College. Follow him on twitter @NickfrmBoston.

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