Economic and Social Research Council
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New epigenetics research to understand how early life experiences affect health

Eight new projects are set to study the impact of early life experiences on lifelong health, with over £3 million of funding awarded to researchers across the UK. The projects bring together both biological and social scientists in an innovative collaboration funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).

The projects will advance the understanding of epigenetics – the study of how biological traits are affected by environmental factors – by examining the complex interactions between social phenomena, human biology and behaviour. Existing evidence shows that experiences in early life are linked to health and behavioural outcomes in the future, but the ways in which these experiences make a difference are not yet fully understood.

Epigenetics studies could have huge implications for both health and social policy, and the projects will all look at practical ways to prevent certain situations from having an adverse effect on future health and wellbeing.

The £3 million investment will also develop the potential of both biological and social sciences for the future, providing a vital platform for researchers from both disciplines to collaborate and advance the field of epigenetics.

Professor Melanie Welham, BBSRC Executive Director of Science, said: “This innovative collaboration between biological and social scientists will help us to understand the impact of early life experiences on future health. Many big public health issues associated with ageing have significant sociological as well as biological dimensions. By bridging the gap between disciplines, we will help build an excellent, multidisciplinary research community in the field of epigenetics.”

Professor Jane Elliott, ESRC Chief Executive, said: “I’m delighted that ESRC and BBSRC have worked together so closely to fund these excellent projects. Not only will this research provide fascinating insights and potentially have an impact on policy now, but will build interdisciplinary research skills that will be invaluable in these areas for the years ahead.”

The eight projects are:

  • Dr Jordana Bell, King’s College London 
    Epigenetic responses to social and environmental cues in early life and over the life course: impact on healthy ageing in UK population-based cohorts - £619,994
  • Professor Gillian Bently, Durham University 
    Epigenetic stability in a stressful environment and its effects on reproductive function – £198,339
  • Dr Vincent Cunliffe, University of Sheffield 
    EpiStressNet: A biosocial systems approach to understanding the epigenetic embedding of social stress responses - £249,703
  • Professor Paul Haggarty, University of Aberdeen 
    Imprinting methylation; early life influences and later cognition and mood - £446,636
  • Dr Laura Howe, University of Bristol 
    INTERpreting epigenetic signatures in STudies of Early Life Adversity (InterStELA) - £249,391
  • Professor Caroline Relton, University of Bristol 
    Epigenetics: Environment, Embodiment and Equality (E4) - £834,323
  • Professor Colum Walsh, University of Ulster 
    EpiFASSTT: Epigenetic effects on children's psychosocial development in a randomised trial of Folic Acid Supplementation in Second and Third Trimester -£499,427
  • Dr Chloe Chung Yi Wong, King’s College London 
    Epigenetic trajectories of biological response to adolescent psychosocial stress: A novel longitudinal study of discordant monozygotic twins - £493,270

Further information

Notes for editors

  • The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK’s largest funder of research on the social and economic questions facing us today. It supports the development and training of the UK’s future social scientists and also funds major studies that provide the infrastructure for research. ESRC-funded research informs policymakers and practitioners and helps make businesses, voluntary bodies and other organisations more effective. The ESRC also works collaboratively with six other UK research councils and Innovate UK to fund cross-disciplinary research and innovation addressing major societal challenges. The ESRC is an independent organisation, established by Royal Charter in 1965, and funded mainly by the Government. In 2015 it celebrates its 50th anniversary.
  • The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) invests in world-class bioscience research and training on behalf of the UK public. Our aim is to further scientific knowledge, to promote economic growth, wealth and job creation and to improve quality of life in the UK and beyond. 
    Funded by Government, BBSRC invested over £509 million in world-class bioscience in 2014-15. We support research and training in universities and strategically funded institutes. BBSRC research and the people we fund are helping society to meet major challenges, including food security, green energy and healthier, longer lives. Our investments underpin important UK economic sectors, such as farming, food, industrial biotechnology and pharmaceuticals.


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