New Directions in Epigenetics

In the 1980s, UK physician David Barker theorized that certain conditions and exposures during fetal development may relate to epigenetic modifications that correspond to chronic disease in later life. This view about the origins of non-communicable or chronic disease has permeated scientific literature and practice, precipitating a new field of basic science and capturing public attention about the mechanisms of reproductive risk and reproductive outcomes. This study aims to produce a synthetic view of how epidemiologists and animal scientists locate population health risk in female bodies, with target populations in mind, and how these scientists model long-term health across two additional analytic axes: temporal (early life to later life) and species (animal to human). Specifically, how do women's bodies become the vector for population health? How is adult health understood through in utero models? How do scientists understand human health through animal models? As ethical debates and public conversations about genetics continue, a fuller understanding of the ascendant epigenetic paradigm in maternal and child health research will assist broader understandings of where science and society locate determinants of disease and what this means for the reproductive regulation of particular bodies and behaviors in a population. This work has been supported by the Science, Technology & Society Program at the National Science Foundation (SES-1256651).