When researchers try to uncover the cause of disease, they commonly start with two questions: Did a quirk in the patient’s genes open the door to illness, or did exposure to environmental factors play havoc with the patient’s health?
Very often, both genes and the environment are at least partly to blame, and to provide the most effective treatment, health care providers need to know as much as possible about how they work together.
With support from a $5.3 million National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant, scientists from Texas A&M; University and Johns Hopkins University will further investigate how individuals’ health is affected by the environment and genetics. Two NIH units-The National Human Genome Research Institute and The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences-will provide the funding over a five-year period.
David Threadgill, Ph.D., director of the Texas A&M; Institute for Genome Sciences and Society at the Texas A&M; College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences and professor and holder of the Tom and Jean McMullin Chair of Genetics at the Texas A&M; College of Medicine is co-lead on the project, along with Andrew Feinberg, Bloomberg Distinguished Professor and director of the Center for Epigenetics at Johns Hopkins.
Research on how genetics work in concert with the environment to affect health is a relatively new area of research, according to Threadgill. “For the last several decades, research has largely focused on genetic differences that are associated with disease,” he said. “However, the environment, particularly intersecting with genetics, probably has a much larger impact on our health.”
Threadgill will provide the expertise in genetics and clinical phenotyping for the project. “My research group has a long-standing interest in how environmental exposures, such as chemicals and diet, interact with our genetics to impact future health and disease,” he added, “and importantly how this knowledge can be used to reduce the health impacts of detrimental environmental exposures.”
Epigenetics is the study of genetic activity changes that occur without alteration of the basic DNA sequences. Sometimes, epigenetic changes triggered by environmental factors lead to serious health problems. As a first step toward averting or treating such illnesses, researchers need to figure out precisely how this process unfolds.
“The environment is perhaps the major contributor to human disease, yet its effect is virtually impossible to control for in human genetic studies,” Feinberg said. “One example of how this team will try to get around this problem is by studying a very genetically diverse set of animal models and an environmental issue that is important to many people: exposure to lead and how it is linked to significant health and behavioral issues.”
The team will use advanced genomic and mathematical methods to gather data and relate these findings directly to human disease population studies in order to understand how our distinct genomes and individual exposures to environmental factors affect human health.
“We are using epigenetic information,” Feinberg said, “to understand how genes and environment connect as information that reprograms our bodies in early development to behave in a healthy or unhealthy way, and how it sets us up for adverse responses to stressors later in life. In particular, we are studying lead exposure in the mouse model, and then will connect these results to a large group of urban lead-exposed people in Baltimore and the behavioral effects this exposure causes.”
“This is one of several collaborative projects we are working on to address how the environment alters our epigenome to influence health and disease,” Threadgill said. “We hope that this work will lay the foundation for understanding the mechanisms by which the environment alters our health and to identify interventions that can reduce the negative impacts of disease.”