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Didier Emmanuel

Chargé de recherche, CNRS
Membre de l’équipe ETT du CMH.

Discipline  : Sociologie

Adresse professionnelle :
CMH, 48 boulevard Jourdan
75014 Paris

The French Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) and UCLA’s Institute for Society and Genetics (ISG) opened a joint research unit names EpiDaPo (Epigenetics, Data, Politics) dedicated to interdisciplinary research centered on epigenetics. It will foster natural scientist, social scientists, and environmentalists to work together.

Epigenetics is an old notion, but since the 2000 it enjoys a completely renewed and fresh attention. Indeed, natural scientists have identified processes, especially methylation and histone acetylation that, while they do not actually transform the genome, seem to control the expression of the genes. One of the very interesting points here is that these latter processes are themselves controlled by social and environmental factors. Hence, epigenetics as it is understood today allows explaining how factors such as pollution, nutrition, developmental factors or even social class influence gene expression, and also how it might be possible to reverse their effects.

This topic is crucial for three reasons.

1) Epigenetics is scientifically an occasion to rejuvenate completely interdisciplinary research. Epigenetics is necessarily a long argumentative chain. Arguments come from biotechnology as much as environmental science or social science. Specialists of these disciplines are building their definitions of epigenetics and are already working together to develop a common language. Epidapo will be the place where this common language will have the better chance to thrive consciously, thanks to a special dedication to science reflexivity.

2) Epigenetics is a new dialogue between disciplines, and also between different kinds of data. Indeed, institutions gathering what is commonly called “big data”, be they private (such as IMS Health of Cégédim) or public (social security) are major actors in the field. Biobanks, that gathers together collections very different in kind, such as tissues, medical and sociodemographic data, are flourishing. Birth cohorts, based on representative samples of fetuses followed from conception to the 20th anniversary of the person they became, are also developing. This proliferation of new data is in itself a social event with specific motives, means, and consequences that ought to be studied in Epidapo.

3) Epigenetics is exciting for political scientists and for politician alike. It might produce new means of control over many diseases such as diabetes, obesity, cancer or schizophrenia. At the same time, some people close to the development of epigenetics already criticize some of the consequences it might have, calling it eugenics. Therefore, epidapo might very well be an opportunity to study the deep reforms of the politics of public health and health insurance that might arise form epigenetics.