Reproduction, Heredity, and Epigenetics

"All the world is a stage," Shakespeare wrote, and in a scientific sense, he was right.  Your body is acting out a script that defines your existence, one which is encoded in each of your 37 trillion cells.  That script is made up of short chunks of DNA called genes, which tell your cells how to grow and function. 

We all have the same set of genes, and that's what unites us as a species.  You can't change that, but your script can be adapted in different ways: picture a big-budget Hollywood production of A Midsummer Night's Dream as opposed to one acted at a community theater.  The sets, costumes, and effects would be very different, but the story and the words would be the same.

If, on the stage of your body, your genes are the script and your cells are the cast, epigenetics is the director that determines the way the script is enacted.  Everything in your life - your environment, upbringing, diet, age, emotional states, and relationships - can determine whether individual genes are expressed or silenced.  Epigenetics accounts for variation among genetically identical twins.  Epigenetic changes can determine whether you get diseases like cancer or Alzheimer's.  And some of these epigenetic changes can be inherited.

Although the scientific study of epigenetics only dates to the middle of the twentieth century, scientists have puzzled over related questions of heredity and development for hundreds of years.  Does it matter whether you inherit a trait from your mother or father?  How do your earliest stages of development influence the rest of your life?  Which characteristics are inborn, and which are learned?  These are questions being asked by epigenetics researchers today, and they are the questions we consider in a historical sense in this exhibition. 

About the Exhibit

This exhibit was curated in 2015 in conjunction with the Bond Life Sciences Center's annual Life Sciences and Society Program.