DNA carries the genetic information that guides the development of a fertilised egg into a baby and onwards into adulthood; continues to shape our growth, development, and health as we age; and provides all the diverse cells in our bodies with the instructions they need to carry out their functions. But DNA is just the starting point. 

Every type of cell needs to use different parts of the same DNA template to produce a different set of proteins - a brain cell doesn’t need the genes that fight infections, and an immune system cell doesn’t need the genes that form neural connections. Cells also have to be able to respond to the changing environment. Our lab studies how DNA and the proteins it wraps itself around (collectively called chromatin) are regulated, and how this regulation contributes to changes in gene expression during the life course and in response to environmental factors. 

The DNA and protein components of chromatin can be marked with molecular epigenetic “tags” that change how the cell processes nearby genes. For example, a tag known as DNA methylation helps to repress genes that need to be silenced. Methylation and other epigenetic tags can turn each gene’s expression level up or down, like a dimmer switch for a light bulb, without changing the sequence of the DNA or the function of the gene itself. 

We employ various approaches to determine how DNA methylation and chromatin protein modifications are regulated, how they interact with the underlying genetic sequence to affect which genes are expressed in which cells, and how changes to these epigenetic marks can affect human development and lifelong health trajectories. Together, the research in our lab bridges the molecular mechanisms of epigenetic regulation and the social and environmental determinants of human health to develop a comprehensive understanding of early life.