Research into the biology of disease emergence has so far focused on their genetic origins. Only recently has the focus shifted toward the epigenetic and environmental aspects, and there is still much that needs to be explored here. Epigenetics is important for society because by increasing our understanding of epigenetics we are able to understand how the environment influences the emergence of lifestyle diseases such as obesity, infertility and more.
Another aspect is that epigenetics may explain things that genetics cannot. One example is autism, something we haven't been able to find reliable genetic markers for. We've found maternal or paternal influences for the emergence of autism but not a direct genetic link. Epigenetic research can take this one step further by looking for possible environmental causes of autism, how the parents are influenced by environment and how those epigenetic changes in turn can cause autism.
One genome, hundreds of epigenomes
Epigenetics is the study of chemical modifications to the DNA that are not related to mutations. Instead, these modifications are layered on top of the genetic sequence, and they do regulate genetic expression and the phenotype of the cell. This means that a body, a person or animal, has only one genotype but hundreds of epigenomes - cell specific genetic modifications that make each cell what it is.
We need to look for exposures that are relevant from the perspective of production animals or humans. Today we're using chickens to study how different types of stress, such as handling stress, or stress generated by light patterns, would change the epigenome of specific cells.
Epigenetics for animal welfare
Being able to identify epigenetic marks could for example show if a chicken has been exposed to stress in life. Detecting recent stress is easy, all you need is hormone analysis. But there is no tool able to show if an animal has been stressed throughout its whole life. This is where epigenetics could greatly influence animal welfare.
We are currently trying to create an epigenetic tool to detect long term stress in production animals. The idea is to have a reliable mark of stress in the production environment that could be useful for consumers or regulating agencies such as KRAV. Right now an inspector can go to a farm and see that a chicken looks healthy. With an epigenetic analysis tool they could take a blood sample and know if the animal has been treated decently throughout its entire life. This would enable consumers to know that they're eating meat from animals who have been treated well and help regulating agencies detect anomalous conditions during production.
Aside from research, my main interest lies in mentoring. For me the research has meaning and I try to transmit this meaning to my students since then.
As a Ph.D. I taught a class on basic epigenetics, and I started investing a lot of time in creating and teaching an interesting class for my graduate students. This made students want to come to me, and I have mentored a number of graduate and post-graduate students.
When I teach I always try to relate what I'm teaching to society - to show the role of epigenetics in society, and how it can it affect you. The students get excited because they see research that is meaningful, that it has the ability to affect the world. That is what I like about science, that you can find a problem and match the problem to a specific societal need. I hope to transmit that realization to my students.
My role as a mentor
I'm always trying to think of what would have helped me if I had been in the situation my students are in. And since my memories of my own time as a Ph.D student are still fresh I try to teach how I would have liked to be taught. I try to be close, not supervise from a distance, be a partner in crime and break the ice.
If my students make a mistake or an error in the lab, they should feel free to contact me. I try to show them that mistakes are normal in science, that you are bound to screw up and make an error sometimes. When you're young you are unsure, and sometimes ashamed of your error, but I try to show my students that it's better to show me so that we can try to fix it together.
I try to be involved in all steps, from the science and writing to the final presentation. I want my students to be good at more than the bench, that is the experimental part, I want show them how to succeed in writing and communicating your ideas to the public. As a mentor I try to help them with all these aspects of science, and so far they seem to appreciate it.
- Undergraduate student in veterinary medicine Tâmara Noronha (University of Passso Fundo, Brazil) for training internship at Linköping University.
- Masters student Tom Prakash for thesis project at Linköping University (Linköping, Sweden; 2016).
- Masters student Nina Mittheiss for thesis project at Linköping University (Linköping, Sweden; 2016).
- PhD student Fabio Pertille (University of Sao Paulo, Brazil) for training internship at Linköping University (Linköping, Sweden; 2015)
- Masters student Sofia Eleftheriadis for thesis project at Linköping University (Linköping, Sweden; 2015)
- PhD student Els Willems (KU Leuven, Belgium) for training internship at Linköping University (Linköping, Sweden; 2013)
- Undergraduate Honours Thesis of Ms. Tiffany Hylkema, Honors College, Washington State University (Pullman, WA, USA; 2011-2013).
- Neuroscience undergraduate student Ms. Shelby Weeks, Washington State University (Pullman, WA, USA; 2010-present).
- Undergrad Honours Thesis of Ms. Sean Leonard. Thesis title: ‘Analysis of Transgenerational DNA methylation Changes in Sperm’. Honors College, Washington State University (Pullman, WA, USA; 2008-2011).
- Bachelor of Science undergraduate student Ms. Fernanda Valdovinos, University of Chile (Santiago, Chile; 2005).