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Professor David Baulcombe
head of the Baulcombe Group at the John Innes Centre

In biology and genetics one of the key challenges is to understand how life – cells and organisms - work as integrated systems. Clearly we cannot just join together our knowledge of the individual DNA, RNA and protein molecules and construct a model of life, because cells and organisms are more than the sum of their parts. One approach to this understanding is through epigenetics.

Epigenetics deals with changes to living systems that persist through cell divisions or even between generations, although genomic DNA sequences are unaffected. Epigenetic mechanisms are involved in development and evolution. They also influence the way the environment (nurture) influences expression of the genetic potential of the genome (nature). Knowledge about epigenetics and other complex aspects of living systems will help us understand ourselves, the living world and the most effective ways to develop biotechnology for healthcare and agriculture.

Without doubt the central issues concern environmental and societal sustainability and quality of life for people. To address these issues involves many technological challenges, but the biggest stumbling block at present is economic and political. Our current economic systems based on continuous growth cannot survive indefinitely. However we lack alternative economic and political models that are not dependent on never-ending depletion of natural resources and that do not create populations with vastly different wealth. Perhaps our understanding of living systems will provide concepts for development of such models.

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