EPIGENETICS CONTROVERSY – Political or Scientific


How epigenetics can blur the line between nature and nurture 
by   Siddhartha Mukherjee
Author of new book:
The Gene: An Intimate History

Recommended by a dear friend, Jamie Lantz,  I read The New Yorker article with great interest. It was a creative essay that wove together identical twins, family, personal experience, and speculation on the newness of epigenetics.

I was puzzled by a single paragraph where Mukherjee talks about a very strange cell – ” Where Allis describes “Tetrahymena as carrying two very distinct collections of genes”. That is the case also for insects that metamorphose – each cell of the caterpillar and butterfly have two nuclii, one for each form. Then the topic was dropped and there was nothing about how that assisted in their study.

“Allis soon found his ideal subject: a bizarre single-celled microbe called Tetrahymena. Blob-shaped cells surrounded by dozens of tiny, whiskery projections called cilia, Tetrahymena are improbable-looking—each a hairy Barbapapa, or a Mr. Potato Head who fell into a vat of Rogaine. “Perhaps the strangest thing about this strange organism is that it carries two very distinct collections of genes,” he told me. “One is completely shut off during its normal life cycle and another is completely turned on. It’s really black-and-white.” Then, during reproduction, an entirely different nucleus wakes up and goes into action. “So we could now ask, What signal, or mechanism, allows Tetrahymena to regulate one set of genes versus the next?”

I then discovered, since I had to Google search to find the article, that this New Yorker article has given rise to a great controversy.  I accessed 3 articles that refer to it. The first summarizes the controversy, the other two contain the actual critiques by other scientists.  I have only skimmed the 2 very long articles.  My take is that his critics took his piece as a scientific statement, which it wasn’t – but it could be seen as such by those without scientific backgrounds.

Mukherjee apparently has responded point-by-point to his critics, and they WERE online – as reported in the comments – but I have yet to locate them.  It appears that the continuing debate has been removed from public access.  It will be interesting to see how a future issue of The New Yorker reports this controversy.

Mukherjee’s article (Ma) did leave out much and would give a biased view – to someone expecting it to be comprehensive.  But, what was deeper in the emotionality of the ctitics (and even more in the comments to the long articles) is Mukherjee SPECULATION that epigenetic heredity was possible. That he used Lamark was viewed by some as a crime, associating it with Lysenko. Mukherjee was CLEAR that he was speculating on the possibility of epigenetic transfer across generations. He acknowledged it was controversial.

It was strange , for me first reading Ma ,that it first talked about epigenetics within a cell and species – with NO MENTION of inheritance – because the “Lamarkian” inheritance aspect was ALL I had previously known about epigenetics – from my random reading.  I knew it was controversial, but not aware of the extent.

I also sense in some of his critics that they might also object to scientists writing for non-scientists.  I thought this was left behind decades ago.  Carl Sagan was dismissed by many astrophysicists because of his lay writing.  I believe that a careful read of the critical articles would be very informative about the controversial field of epigenetics.

Certainly Ma was far, far from a quality explication of the topic.  Were I an expert in the field I might have also objected to Ma. On the other hand, I really liked his metaphors about the gene and the other material that can also contain codes. He was clear, in my view, in simplifying epigenetics as epi–genetics. That he didn’t cite ALL the different ways epigenetics might work is not critical for the objective of his essay.  Also, that other means (e.g., transcription) are cited today as more potent in epigenetics than what M cited, may not be the case tomorrow.  I recently read how the physical proximity (IN THE COILED chromosome) of two genes (very distant ON THE SAME STRAND) is an important factor.  We are SO FAR from adequately comprehending this that the anger of M’s critics embarrasses me – acting like politicians. Their critique was NOT a scientific critique, but political.

Author: nuet

01/24/1935. BS-physics RPI 1956; MS-physics UofChicago 1958; PhD-physics Yale 1965; PhD-Edu Psy Uof MInnesota 1970. Auroral Research Byrd Station, Antarctica 11/1960-02/1962. MINNEMAST curriculum dev 1964-68. Woodstock. faculty Pima Community College, Tucson 1974-1997. Transdisciplinary scientist, philosopher, educator, futurist, activist. PC user since 1982. "Wife". daughter, 2 grandsons. 5 dogs & 7 cats. Lacks mental imagery in all sensory domains.