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Randy Jirtle Wins Major Award for Work in Epigenetics

Madison, Wisconsin - Twenty years ago, many doctors were skeptical about the idea that our daily environment and behaviors affected our genes, and most of us relied on a pill for almost every ill. So much has changed during the last two decades, in large part due to Randy Jirtle, a senior scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.


Jirtle, part of the McArdle Laboratory for Cancer Research at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health, has earned the Linus Pauling Functional Medicine Award for his revolutionary work in epigenetics and genomic imprinting.


In the early 2000s, Jirtle discovered a mechanism by which the epigenome - the chemical programs that control gene expression - is susceptible to external forces as early as fetal development.


“We’re set up - to a degree - by the environment we’re exposed to very early and the way our epigenome, like a computer program, is initially established,” said Jirtle. “But before we used the agouti mouse model to show that this results from changes in epigenetic programs, no one knew how this actually occurred.”


Agouti mice have a gene that determines if the animal’s coat is yellow or brown. Jirtle’s agouti mice showed how litters of mice can vary greatly in coat color and disease susceptibility through alterations in their epigenome that are based on the mother’s diet during pregnancy. These studies give credence to the idea that early exposures to chemicals, activity patterns, and other factors may also affect disease development in humans.


In perhaps the most well-known example, pregnant mice in the study group were fed food laced with bisphenol A (BPA) while the control group received food without BPA. This endocrine-disrupting agent is the target of much criticism because of its link to cancer formation and reproductive problems. The offspring of the mothers who received the control diet grew into healthy brown adults.


In contrast, offspring exposed during pregnancy to BPA had bright yellow coats and became obese as adults because of alterations in their epigenomes. These studies helped remove BPA from plastic baby bottles and other products.


The award, presented by the Institute for Functional Medicine, has been given since 1996 to clinicians and researchers who’ve pioneered important developments in the functional medicine model.


Upon learning he would be presented with the award, Jirtle said that it’s “almost overwhelming. It’s a huge honor because the award associates your name and what you’ve done with one of the greatest scientists ever, so it’s quite an amazing experience. It’s very humbling.”


Linus Carl Pauling was a chemist, biochemist and activist. He is credited as being one of the founders of quantum chemistry and molecular biology. Pauling, twice a Nobel Prize winner - first in 1954 for his work in chemistry and then in 1962 for his peace activism - is one of only four people to have won more than one Nobel Prize, and one of only two people to earn the prize in different fields. Marie Curie won Nobel Prizes in physics and chemistry.


Jirtle was born in Kewaunee, Wisconsin, and received his bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees from UW-Madison. He was on the faculty of Duke University for many years, where he did the initial agouti experiments. The mouse population is now housed at the UW where he and Michael Gould, professor of oncology, are investigating the effects of low doses of ionizing radiation on the epigenome.

Date Published: 07/24/2014

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Randy Jirtle Wins Major Award for Work in Epigenetics

Last updated: 07/30/2014
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