Growing Up Poor Can Alter Your Genes

The study of epigenetics is showing how childhood poverty has deleterious health impacts that can last for a lifetime.

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Michael Kobor, associate professor in the Department of Medical Genetics at the University of British Columbia, studies epigenetics. To help explain his field of study, he invites you to think of each of your 25,000 genes as a light bulb. The intensity of the light represents the level of activity of each gene. Like genes, each of these 25,000 light bulbs can be fully on or fully off, but epigenetics is like the dimmer switch that allows them to shine at any intensity in between; Kobor looks at both the light intensity and the position of the dimmer switch.

Unlike the sequence of your genes, which are inherited from your parents, your epigenetics are subject to change throughout your life based on your experiences. However, some of these changes can be long-lasting.

Epigenetics can be tracked through small chemical groups called methyl groups that attach to DNA to regulate gene activity, giving a marker that researchers can seek out to look for patterns, says Kobor.

Kobor is especially interested in the impact of early childhood poverty, and has uncovered several recognizable epigenetic patterns that predict whether a person had high or low socioeconomic status growing up.

It turns out that the patterns observed in people raised in poverty are not random – they are similar to patterns seen in heightened immune responses. While this may seem like a positive when it comes to resilience to infections, an overactive immune system is associated with a variety of medical conditions, from coronary heart disease to poor mental health. Kobor hopes that evidence of these concrete epigenetic changes might help change policies to give every child a healthy start in life.

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Dr. Michael S. Kobor is an Associate Professor in theDepartment of Medical Genetics at UBC, and a Scientist at the Centre for Molecular Medicine and Therapeutics, a gene research centre under UBC’s Faculty of Medicine and located at theChild and Family Research Institute (CFRI).

Dr. Kobor completed his PhD in Medical Genetics under Dr. Jack Greenblatt at the University of Toronto before undertaking postdoctoral training as a Human Frontier Science Program Fellow with Dr. Jasper Rine at the University of California, Berkeley.

Research in Dr. Kobor’s laboratory is focused on the epigenetic regulation of gene expression and genome function. Particular emphasis is placed on understanding the mechanistic nature of these processes and their modulation by environmental exposures. Dr. Kobor’s research team utilizes an interdisciplinary approach, with investigations spanning the entire spectrum from model organisms to human populations.  Through a variety of research approaches, ongoing work in Dr. Kobor’s laboratory touches on some of the fundamental questions in chromatin biology.  These queries include how distinct chromosomal neighbourhoods are established, how they function and interact with enzymes involved in DNA metabolism, what the functional differences between histone variants and canonical histones are, and how chromatin-remodeling complexes are regulated.  Most recently, working with his research team and interdisciplinary collaborators, Dr. Kobor has begun investigating epigenetic variation in humans, with a particular focus on the effects of social environment on lifelong health and aging.  These studies aim to decipher the mechanisms by which environmental exposures and life experiences can “get under the skin” to regulate the activity of genes and contribute to human physiology and behaviour during the life course of an individual.