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Washington State University
CAS Connect November-December 2013

DNA ’burrs’ discovery earns Smithsonian Ingenuity Award

Not your grandma’s genes

A simple mistake during an experiment with endocrine disruptors—chemicals that can interfere with fetal development—dramatically changed the course of Michael Skinner’s research and led him to challenge the core biological principals of genetic inheritance.

Michael Skinner accepts the American Ingenuity  Award as presented by Carol Greider   (Sharon Farmer/sfphotoworks)
Michael Skinner accepts the American Ingenuity Award as presented by Carol Greider (Sharon Farmer/sfphotoworks)

Skinner, a professor of biological sciences, was honored Nov. 19 with an American Ingenuity Award from Smithsonianmagazine for his pioneering work in the field of trangenerational epigenetics: the study of inherited changes that can’t be explained by traditional genetics. Nobel prize winner in physiology Carol Greider presented the award during a gala at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.

A novel concept

Modern biologists know that DNA controls the inheritance process; mutations in the sequence are how changes in biology from parent to child are transmitted.

Skinner and his colleagues discovered that exposure to toxic substances during pregnancy can cause molecules called methyl groups to latch onto the fetal DNA in rats. Like burrs stuck to a sweater, these extra molecules are passed along from generation to generation and are linked to increased disease and abnormalities for more than three generations.

“In essence,” Skinner explained, “what your great-grandmother was exposed to could cause disease in you and your grandchildren.”

In recent years, the Skinner lab has documented epigenetic effects from a host of environmental toxicants, including plastics, pesticides, fungicides, dioxins, hydrocarbons and the plasticizer bisphenol-A or BPA.

Researchers determined each chemical exposure produces a distinct methyl group pattern that persists in the great-grandchildren of exposed rats and appears to be connected to specific diseases such as ovarian cancer and kidney disease. In October, Skinner and his colleagues published a paper inPLOS One linking exposure of DDT to obesity in future generations.

Although it’s not likely the methyl groups can be fixed, Skinner said, simply knowing they exist may provide opportunity for novel diagnostics and therapeutics. In the future it may be possible to get an epigenetic diagnosis and then with specific lifestyle changes and therapies actually prevent certain diseases from developing.

Skinner addresses the audience at the  Smithsonian awards event.  (Sharon Farmer/sfphotoworks)
Skinner addresses the audience at the Smithsonian awards event. (Sharon Farmer/sfphotoworks)

“Michael’s research is a wonderful example of the power of science to open new windows on how the world works. His insights into inheritance and disease susceptibilities will help us better understand the consequences of chemicals in our environment,” said Larry Hufford, director of the School of Biological Sciences.

Risk-taking reward

The Smithsonian American Ingenuity Awards honor “innovators who are revolutionizing their fields with recent, high-impact achievements,” said Smithsonianmagazine editor-in-chief Michael Caruso. “While their work is different in objective, each winner is embracing the Smithsonian’s mission to increase knowledge and shape the world of tomorrow.”

In all, nine groundbreaking individuals across categories including technology, performing and visual arts, natural and physical sciences, education, historical scholarship, social progress, and youth achievement were recognized by the organization.

Skinner and his fellow awardees are profiled on the Smithsonian Magazine website, will be featured in the December print issue of the magazine on stands next week, and are the subject of “Genius in America,” a television documentary on the Smithsonian Channel.

Skinner was accompanied at the gala by his wife, son, daughter, and his parents. While in the nation’s capital, he met with Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers and members of the WSU Federal Relations staff.

Associated stories

Jet fuel, plastics exposures cause disease in later generations

WSU researchers link DDT and obesity across generations

About the School of Biological Sciences (SBS)

The School of Biological Sciences advances and conveys fundamental biological knowledge about how organisms function, interact, and evolve in a changing world. SBS faculty, staff, and students discover, create, and analyze information that is critical to confront pressing problems facing our society and implement their efforts through excellence in education, research, and public outreach.

About Smithsonian Media

Smithsonian Media comprises of its flagship publication,Smithsonian magazine, as well as Air & Space, Smithsonian Books, and the Smithsonian Media Digital Network. The Smithsonian Institution is the world’s largest museum and research complex consisting of 19 museums and galleries, the National Zoological Park and nine research facilities. Approximately 30 million people from around the world visit the museums annually.