MODERATOR: Bill Blakemore
PARTICIPANTS: Frances A. Champagne, Randy L. Jirtle, Jean-Pierre Issa
PROGRAM DATE: Saturday, June 1, 2013

When we’re born, our genes click on and whir away to produce our personalities, diseases and physical appearances. Or do they? Research has now revealed that genes can turn on and off; they can be expressed for years and then silenced, or never even used. And what controls them? Scientists have recently discovered our epigenome, biological markers along our DNA that regulate gene expression in response to features like age or environment, and which can influence the traits we pass onto our children. Join a glimpse of the future with scientists at the forefront of the emerging field of epigenetics as they reveal the role our genetic markers play in steering our biological destiny.

This program is part of the Big Ideas Series.

  • Share This:


Bill Blakemore
News Correspondent

Bill Blakemore became a reporter for ABC News 45 years ago, covering a wide variety of stories. He spearheaded ABC’s coverage of global warming, traveling from the tropics to polar regions to report on its impacts, dangers, and possible remedies. Overseas he has covered a dozen wars or major conflicts, including the Black September, Bangladesh, 1973 Arab-Israeli, Iranian and Beirut civil wars, as well as the Iraq wars (from Baghdad), and the Afghan/Taliban war. On 9/11, he reached Ground Zero before the towers fell. He was ABC’s Rome bureau chief 1978-1984, traveled extensively with John Paul II and wrote several documentaries and the Encyclopaedia Britannica article about him. Since 1984, he’s been based in New York, where he also served as education correspondent. He began focusing on biodiversity, extinctions, and global warming in 2004, as well as the emerging sciences of play behavior and animal intelligence, and hosted ABC’s Nature’s Edge until 2012. He has won most major broadcast journalism awards. He currently writes and lectures on the journalistic profession, the “Many Psychologies of Global Warming,” and the cinematic art of Stanley Kubrick.


Behavioral Scientist

Frances A. Champagne is an associate professor in the department of psychology at Columbia University. Champagne received a master’s degree in psychiatry in 1999 and a doctoral degree in neuroscience in 2004 from McGill University. Champagne’s research group explores the impact of experiences (stress, toxins, and social interactions) on the brain and behavior, as well as the role of epigenetic mechanisms in the interplay between environments and gene activity. The epigenetic effects of environmental experiences is also explored across generations, with a particular focus on how mother-infant interactions shape neurobiology of offspring and grand-offspring. Champagne’s research is funded by the National Institutes of Health and involves both basic research and translational studies to determine the health consequences of the environment.


Randy Jirtle headed the epigenetics and imprinting laboratory at Duke University until 2012. He is presently a visiting professor at McArdle Laboratory for Cancer Research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Jirtle’s research interests are in epigenetics, genomic imprinting, and the fetal origins of disease susceptibility. He has published over 180 peer-reviewed articles, and was a featured scientist on the NOVA program entitled Ghost in Your Genes. He was invited to speak at the 2004 and 2011 Nobel Symposia on epigenetics. He was honored in 2006 with the Distinguished Achievement Award from the College of Engineering at the University of Wisconsin. Jirtle was nominated for the 2007 Time magazine’s “Person of the Year.” He was the inaugural recipient of the Epigenetic Medicine Award in 2008, and received the STARS Lecture Award in Nutrition and Cancer from the NCI in 2009. This year Jirtle will publish two books on environmental epigenomics.

Molecular Biologist

Jean-Pierre Issa is a professor of medicine and director at Fels Institute for Cancer Research and Molecular Biology at Temple University. Issa’s laboratory has made important contributions to the understanding of the importance of epigenetics in the pathophysiology and treatment of cancer. His lab’s discoveries include the effects of aging and inflammation on promoter DNA methylation, the CpG Island Methylator Phenotype in multiple cancers, and the interrelations between aberrant DNA methylation and histone modifications in cancer. Starting in 2000, his group initiated laboratory research inspired clinical trials that showed that low doses of hypomethylating drugs specifically target DNA methylation and are optimal in the treatment of leukemias. This work contributed to the FDA approval of decitabine, and led to a large number of epigenetic therapy clinical trials in different malignancies.

Issa’s research focuses on mechanisms of epigenetic alterations in aging and cancer, translation of epigenomic studies for Precision Medicine, development of drugs for reprogramming the epigenome, and clinical trials of epigenetic therapy in cancer. His research has been recognized by numerous awards including a Sidney Kimmell Foundation Scholar Award, election to the American Society of Clinical Investigation, an American Cancer Society clinical research professorship, the Faculty Achievement Award in Basic Research from MD Anderson and the Rosenthal Award.