Obviously, the technology landscape will be entirely different 100 years from now. For example, our wrist watches will continuously measure how stressed we are and signal when excess stress becomes toxic. They will start playing relaxing music or encourage us to take a break when we are around our kids, so that our stress does not affect their epigenome and development.
A: This is a terrific yet incredibly challenging question. Trying to answer it made me go back and reflect on our own history as a laboratory. I mentally transported myself back 11 years, when we first started at UBC. Doing that, I realized that in 2005, we had no idea whatsoever what we would do in 2016. Perhaps we had a dream about what the future would bring for our research but it all seems trivial from today’s perspective.
In large part, this was because I did not anticipate the pace by which technological advances in molecular biology occurred. These opened entirely new avenues of research, allowing us to bring sophisticated epigenetic measures to human population studies.
Obviously, the technology landscape will be entirely different 100 years from now, most likely having evolved to enable measurements of all aspects of human biology in unobtrusive ways, with much greater precision and in real time. For example, our wrist watches will continuously measure how stressed we are and signal when excess stress becomes toxic. They will start playing relaxing music or encourage us to take a break when we are around our kids, so that our stress does not affect their epigenome and development.
This would then allow us to truly understand the multi-layered biology of complex societal issues such as poverty and other key factors affecting human development, ultimately resulting in prevention of diseases influenced by early-life environments.
In contrast to technology, I think the fundamentals of teaching our students to become scholars and excellent researchers will be quite similar 100 years from now. To me, teaching is mentoring and the main virtue I try to instill in my students is a passion for scientific discovery, curiosity, engagement and openness to new, perhaps unconventional, ideas. There is no doubt in my mind that students who embrace interdisciplinary research will be best equipped to solve many of these questions. These traits will still provide an essential framework for research excellence in 100 years and thus empower students to identify the important issues facing humankind and to explore these issues with the technological tools that I can only dream of today.
I very much hope that in 100 years, many of the scientists who make a real difference will remember their scientific great-great-grandfather Michael Kobor and appreciate that they are part of a scientific pedigree characterized by scientific excellence and innovative research.
A: Our current work at the Centre for Molecular Medicine and Therapeutics provides some of the foundational evidence that a diverse set of early-life environments can “get under the skin” to affect health and behaviour across the life-course. These environments include poverty, family environments and even the place in which a child grew up. In part, this happens by altering the activity of genes in our cells by virtue of the attachment of chemical groups to the DNA, a process commonly referred to as epigenetics.
Social epigenetics research contributes to a rapidly growing body of evidence suggesting that our biology is more profoundly affected by social environments than ever anticipated, to the extent that some environments can in fact leave a vestige in our genome that we carry with us for a long time, if not forever. At the societal level, 100 years from now, I suspect that social epigenetics research will be part of the fabric of public discourse and engagement and perhaps might even influence policymakers. It should be noted that much of what we (and the rest of the world) does now in social epigenetics has its roots in the concept of “biological embedding” proposed by the late Dr. Clyde Hertzman at the UBC’s Human Early Learning Partnership (HELP).
The great opportunity here is that our research might contribute to ensure that in 100 years, each and every child has the best possible start to life.
While tantalizing in its implications, we are really only just starting to scratch the surface in social epigenetics research. As such, I believe that our work right now will influence our field in 100 years in at least three distinct ways:
First, our data on genomic embedding of early-life experiences to date will be replaced by a much more sophisticated and nuanced understanding as to which particular environments in early life really matter, when the most opportune window is for these to exert an effect, and which specific biological pathways are the most significant in mediating their effects.
Second, we will illuminate the broader context in which social epigenetics operates and how it is linked to other biological mechanisms relevant for human development, such as our genetic make-up or our microbiome.
Lastly, our approach to interdisciplinary research is a more conceptual — yet really important — aspect of our work that I hope will influence the field in the next 100 years. For me as a molecular geneticist, the synergies created by working interactively with psychologists, researchers in child development, educators, epidemiologists and others, are just simply overwhelming — and most fundamental to our success.