Home > Uncategorized > Jörg Niewöhner “Epigenetics: Embedded bodies and the molecularisation of biography and milieu”

Jörg Niewöhner “Epigenetics: Embedded bodies and the molecularisation of biography and milieu”

Niewöhner, Jörg 2011. Epigenetics: Embedded bodies and the molecularisation of biography and milieu. BioSocieties 6(3): 279–298.


[…] epigenetics refers to long-term functional change in gene expression through methylation or histone modification and not involving the DNA nucleotide sequence itself […] (279)


[…] the emphasis in environmental epigenetics lies primarily in the integration of different levels of context into experimental designs. Environmental epigenetics adds to the longt-standing interest in cellular context a focus on organismic and environmental contexts. (283)


Although note that all transgenerational studies so far show that epigenetic modifications persist only to the generation that has been exposed directly to the stimulus – or be it as effecting germline cells in the foetus. Attempts to show effects in the first generation not directly exposed have produced negative results (Waterland et al. 2007). (284)


Initial and yet as unpublished findings indicate that methylation status at a number of sites changes more within subjects that have experienced a change in their socio-economic status from birth to their 40th birthday compared to subjects that retain the same status – even if that is a low status. Thus, epigenetic modification may be more sensitive to relative change than to a low socio-economic status in absolute terms. (285)


The epistemic object early-life adversity anchors ongoing environmental epigenetics research by providing important links to behavioural psychology and the work with standardized animal behavioural models (for example, Tolman, 1948; Denenberg and Rosenberg, 1967) to the concept of critical windows of increased plasticity, that is, the idea that the body goes through phases of increased sensitivity towards internal and external change, which finds strong support in the conceptual work and research practice of cellular and developmental biology, epidemiology, psychology an lately neurosciences; and, through the notion of adversity, to the extensive research from the late 1920s onwards on the effects of chronic stressors in allostatic load. (289)


Eearly-life adversity is stabilized as an epistemic object in daily research practice through standardized animal behavioural models that act as ‘reified theory’, for example, that reduce the messiness of environmental context in a way suitable for lab work (Latour and Woolgar, 1986) […] (289)


[…] ‘embedded body’, that is, a body that is heavily impregnated by its own past and by the social and material environment within which it dwells. It is a body that is imprinted by evolutionary and transgenerational time, by ‘early-life’ and a body that is highly susceptible to changes in its social and material environment (Niewöhner, 20008, 2011). This notion of the body differs significantly from the individual body with its notion of skin-bound self and autonomy (Bentley, 1941). (290)


Hence, the environment is being molecularised, that is, comes to be known in its molecular effect on human metabolism. In the case of nutrigenomics, the concern lies with the material environment. Environmental epigenetics extends this kind of molecularisation in space and time to include socio-material environments and people’s lifespans: a molecularisation of biography and milieu. Key to this development are changes in molecular biological research practice and experimental design. The emergence of methylation and histone modification as a plausible mode of action and a measurable molecular endpoint means that some molecular biologists begin to extend their gaze from the molecular level and the lab towards suitable objects of study out in the real world. They are trying to figure out instances of rapid change in the social environment that have occurred during an organism’s early-life. (291)


[…] the attempt to operationalise instances of social change according to criteria taken from the practice of molecular biological research. This is the process that I refer to as the molecularisation of biography and milieu. (291)


Environmental epigenetics captures life itself not only in its presentist and individualist shape but also in different socio-historical contexts. Beyond this new reach of biopower, the molecularisation of biography and milieu may also provide the conceptual grounds for a different kind of sociality. (292)

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