Biological embedding of experience: A primer on epigenetics

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2020 Sep 22;117(38):23261-23269. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1820838116. Epub 2019 Oct 17.


Biological embedding occurs when life experience alters biological processes to affect later life health and well-being. Although extensive correlative data exist supporting the notion that epigenetic mechanisms such as DNA methylation underlie biological embedding, causal data are lacking. We describe specific epigenetic mechanisms and their potential roles in the biological embedding of experience. We also consider the nuanced relationships between the genome, the epigenome, and gene expression. Our ability to connect biological embedding to the epigenetic landscape in its complexity is challenging and complicated by the influence of multiple factors. These include cell type, age, the timing of experience, sex, and DNA sequence. Recent advances in molecular profiling and epigenome editing, combined with the use of comparative animal and human longitudinal studies, should enable this field to transition from correlative to causal analyses.

Keywords: biological embedding of experience; epigenetic mechanisms; epigenome; gene–environment interplay; translational research.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • DNA Methylation
  • Epigenesis, Genetic*
  • Epigenomics
  • Gene-Environment Interaction
  • Humans