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The paradox of care in behavioral epigenetics: Constructing early-life adversity in the lab

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Abstract

Many epigenetic studies focus on how stress, trauma, and care become molecularly embodied, affect gene expression without changing DNA sequence, and produce changes that influence the health and behavior of individuals, their offspring, and future generations. This article describes how care has become central in research on the epigenetic effects of early-life adversity. My analysis draws on ethnographic research in a behavioral epigenetics laboratory in the United States. Building on traditions in feminist science studies, I document how care is enacted with research samples, experimental protocols, and behavioral endpoints in experiments with model organisms. My findings point to tensions between researchers’ care for the data and their measurement of adversity as a discrete variable in the form of maternal interaction, neglect, and abuse in mice. I argue that these tensions suggest a ‘paradox of care’ that is actively shaping how epigenetic knowledge is produced and its impacts both within and beyond the lab, including for understandings of how early-life experiences shape human health, and our social expectations of mothers. This study suggests that more complex explanations of health and development promised by epigenetics are simultaneously constructed and constrained by caring practices in the laboratory.

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Notes

  1. Despite an increasing number of studies on the epigenetic impacts of men’s experiences and exposures, science studies scholars have pointed to the disproportionate attention paid to women as primary objects of epigenetics research and the potential of epigenetic science to reinforce the social and medical focus on women’s bodies and behaviors as sites for others (cf. Richardson, 2015; Richardson et al. 2014; Almeling and Waggoner 2013; Daniels 1997; Daniels 2006; Kenney and Muller, 2016). This scholarship illustrates how postgenomic research has shifted the temporal politics of maternal care (Waggoner, 2013, 2015; Lappé and Landecker, 2015; Lappé, 2016) and depicted women’s bodies and choices as centrally responsible for – or doing ‘double damage’ to – their children via epigenetic modifications initiated before birth and during early development (Warin et al., 2012; Richardson 2015; Kenney and Muller, 2016). As “environments of exposure” (Landecker, 2011) and “embedded bodies” (Niewöhner, 2011), female bodies have therefore become unique sites through which epigenetic claims are made, even in the context of ongoing research into the myriad factors that influence gene expression.

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Acknowledgements

Research for this article was supported by National Human Genome Research Institute Grants P50HG007257 and K99HG009154.

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Correspondence to Martine Lappé.

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Lappé, M. The paradox of care in behavioral epigenetics: Constructing early-life adversity in the lab. BioSocieties 13, 698–714 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41292-017-0090-z

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