In late 1960’s I began “cloning” stem cells. I would isolate one stem cell and put it in a culture dish by itself. The cell divides every 10-12 hours. After two weeks in culture, I have thousands if cells … all genetically identical (derived from the same parent). I split the population into three groups and inoculate each group into its own tissue culture dish. I introduce a different culture medium into each of the three dishes (the culture medium is the cell’s environment). In one dish the cells form bone, in one dish the cells form muscle and in the third dish the cells form fat cells. POINT: What control’s the “fate” of the cells? The environment.
These studies were carried out through the early 1970’s, a time when science was entrenched with the idea of “genetic determinism,” the belief that genes control life. My experiments revealed another reality, yet my colleagues generally ignored the findings and attributed them to “exceptions” or anomalies. Unfortunately, they just didn’t get it … there are NO anomalies/exceptions,! Their appearances mean that we don’t understand something. The data revealed that the genes were simply “potentials” and that the environment controlled gene activity. Change the environment and change the fate of the cells.
I researched the possible mechanisms by which environmental information controlled cell functions. In the late 1970’s, my studies on the control mechanism that led to my insights about the cell membrane being the “brain” of the cell were and still are ahead of conventional science’s belief in the nucleus as a cell’s control center. The insights of my work were part of a relatively new and currently important field of science now known as Signal Transduction, the science of how a cell converts environmental awareness into behavior. Epigenetics is a specialized “subfield” of signal transduction (“founded in the mid 1990’s), is a study concerned with how environmental information is translated into gene regulation. That’s my connection with epigenetics.
A similar story about a biologist (Mina Bissell) recognizing the role of environment in controlling genes is in the attached article from the Oakland paper. I was ~15 years ahead … but who’s counting?