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Gordon Research Conference on Epigenetics (July 30 – August 4, 2017): John Greally

As part of its mission to encourage engagement within the genetics community, PLOS Genetics is sponsoring a number of conferences and meetings this year.  In order to raise awareness about these conferences and the researchers who attend them, we are featuring a number of these conferences on Biologue, with posts written by the organizers, or the PLOS Genetics editors who are involved.

I’m John Greally, Director of the Center for Epigenomics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. I will be contributing to the Gordon Research Conference (GRC) on Epigenetics that will be held between July 30th and August 4th in the Holderness School in New Hampshire, chaired by Pam Geyer and Fred Berger. This is now the 12th GRC on Epigenetics since the first was organized back in 1995, and has consistently been unique as a conference that brings together plant, fungal and animal researchers all studying interesting paradigms of cellular and organismal memory.

Just as the definition of epigenetics moved from one originally focused on cellular memory to a biochemical focus, back-translating epi- (above, upon) and -genetics (DNA sequence information), the GRC on Epigenetics has a strong focus on genomic technologies, chromatin modifications and even modifications of RNA. The neo-Lamarckians get to ponder non-DNA mechanisms of inheritance between generations, with the elegant plant models of heritability of “epialleles” generally making the animal geneticists wish they had chosen a different model organism.

Much of the popularity of epigenetics, however defined, has to do with its role in mediating environmental influences and contributing to the development of disease phenotypes. A highlight promises to be Brad Bernstein’s presentation of his cancer studies, while I will be contributing a presentation describing how we could gain new insights into phenotypes by adopting new methodological and conceptual approaches, bundled up as the “second-generation epigenome-wide association study”.

Agouti viable yellow mice. Image credit: Randy Jirtle and Dana Dolinoy, Wikimedia Commons.

Rounding out the areas of focus will be discussions focused on epigenetic reprogramming and heritability of “epigenetic” regulators across cell division, in addition to a discussion of how epigenetic memory of processes like centromere formation have developed over evolution. PLOS Genetics editorial board members presenting will include myself, Eric Miska, Anne Ferguson-Smith, and Harmit Malik, with Wendy Bickmore one of the plenary speakers (along with Susan Gasser).

The GRC meetings are unusual for not publishing abstracts or meeting reviews, to encourage open dialogue. In the age of Twitter, when it’s possible to follow along with your favourite meetings remotely as participants live-tweet with hashtags, such restrictions seem quaint and archaic, but this is the essence of why these GRC meetings are so valuable and interactive. Trainees sitting down for breakfast at the same table as Edith Heard or Rob Martienssen get to discuss science without constraints. This year’s organisers, Pam Geyer and Fred Berger, are introducing a new kind of presentation – posters from the associated Gordon Research Seminar on Epigenetics organized by and for trainees will be highlighted by short oral presentations during the conference, prompting attendees to visit and discuss the work being performed by the next generation of epigenetics researchers.

This year will be interesting to experience as the field of epigenetics is undergoing a period of self-assessment. The excitement and popularity of the field is a double-edged sword, as it has led to ideas in the imagination of non-specialists that are not strongly supported by current research. For example, the idea that we can use our DNA in different ways depending on environmental influences has led to the belief that genes are not fully deterministic of phenotypes, which is probably a safe assumption. However, to take it to the extremes we are seeing, with commercial services for epigenetic face cream or epigenetic yoga, is possibly taking things a bit too far. Likewise, it is still probably too early to declare victory in our search for mechanisms of many of the transgenerational phenotypes being studied in animals, although that search is generating some intriguing findings. We are also increasingly forced to rethink the role of transcription factors (TFs) in the regulatory processes we are studying – there is a fundamental question that we need to ask: whether regulatory processes affecting chromatin states and DNA modifications are inherently intelligent enough to make decisions, or whether they are a bit dumber than we anticipated, and merely act downstream of sequence-specific regulators like TFs. If our field is, after all is said and done, studying specialized instances of transcriptional regulation, are we as excited as we used to be?

The nice thing about a GRC is that this is often the forum where the most challenging ideas are discussed productively. This year could be when we see people paying attention to the question raised by Denise Barlow at one of the earlier meetings. She asked the fellow attendees at that GRC on Epigenetics what exactly we meant by the word “epigenetics” in the title. The answer is, surprisingly, still not clearly one for which there is consensus. This year may be the time to raise Denise’s question again.

To find out more about this year’s GRC on Epigenetics, visit the conference website at


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