Social Genomics

genomicsNearly all human diseases are influenced by complex interactions between inherent genetic susceptibility and exposure to environmental factors (e.g., low socioeconomic status, racial discrimination, and air pollution). Traditional approaches for investigating disease etiology that focus on evaluating genetic and environmental factors independently of one another may fail to identify important context-dependent risk factors for disease, as well as key biological pathways that mediate the effects of exposures on disease outcomes. In light of this, integrative approaches combining genomic and environmental exposure data will help identify people that are particularly susceptible to disease as a result of environmental insult. This insight may lead to improved prevention, intervention, and treatment of complex human diseases.

There are two main areas of research in the field of social genomics. The first focuses on gene-by-environment interactions. Rapid technological advances in the field of genomics now allows measurement of millions of DNA sequence variations in large, multi-ethnic cohorts. Current research is revealing that these changes in DNA sequence often only manifest their biological effects in specific environmental contexts, including those marked by social disadvantage. The second research area focuses on the effects of social exposures on the regulation of gene expression. For example, social epigenomics is defined as the branch of epigenomics that focuses on the effects of socially-patterned exposures on epigenetic modifications such as DNA methylation, histone modification, and microRNA expression, which may increase chronic disease risk by altering gene expression. This field has revolutionized social and genomic epidemiology by providing a direct mechanistic link for how the social environment may get "under the skin."

CSEPH faculty are currently investigating cutting-edge research questions in social genomics including: 1) How do socioeconomic and neighborhood factors interact with genetic variation to influence later-life cognition and cardiovascular disease?, 2) How do childhood and adult socioeconomic and neighborhood factors influence DNA methylation in adulthood, and do these changes in methylation impact cardiovascular disease risk?, 3) Does differential DNA methylation play a role in racial/ethnic disparities in cardiovascular morbidity and mortality?, 4) How does maternal stress exposure influence DNA methylation in newborns? CSEPH faculty are also involved in developing innovative methods for analyzing multi-omic data (genomic, epigenomic, transcriptomic) and its mediating effects of the social environment on health.