Toward an Understanding of the Dynamic Interdependence of Genes and Environment in the Regulation of Phenotype

Nurturing our Epigenetic Nature
  • Ian C. G. Weaver
Part of the Epigenetics and Human Health book series (EHH)


Developmental plasticity refers to the potential for intraindividual change. Traditionally, the relationship between the human genome and the environment has been presented under the framework of gene–environment interactions. However, adaptive phenotypic plasticity emerges from more than just genotype. In humans and nonhuman primates, the nature of mother–infant interactions early in life has a profound role in mediating variation in offspring phenotype, including emotional and cognitive development, which is endured through life. One critical question: How is this “environmental programming” established and maintained in the offspring? Evidence from rodent studies suggests that maternal care in the first week of postnatal life establishes diverse and stable phenotypes in the offspring through epigenetic modification of genes expressed in the brain, which shape neuroendocrine and behavioral stress responsivity throughout life. This research demonstrates that the epigenetic state of a gene can be established through early in life experience and is potentially reversible in adulthood. These findings may well form the molecular basis for understanding potential mechanisms of environmental and developmental determinates of individual differences in human stress reactivity and health outcomes. Henceforth, epigenetic modifications of specific genomic regions in response to variations in environmental conditions might serve as a major source of variation in biological and behavioral phenotypes.


Chromatin DNA methylation Glucocorticoid receptor Hippocampus Maternal care Stress Transgenerational inheritance 



I would like to thank Dr. Shelley E. Brown for her helpful comments and numerous constructive suggestions throughout the preparation of this manuscript.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Krembil Family Epigenetics Laboratory, Department of EpigeneticsCentre for Addiction and Mental HealthTorontoCanada

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