Vulnerability of Germ Cells: Ethics in the Time of Epigenetics

The Weismann barrier is not as impervious as previously thought—this is what epidemiological and animal studies in epigenetics suggest. What does it mean for ethics? Does inter- and transgenerational epigenetic inheritance, if it is definitively demonstrated in humans, create an epigenetic responsibility towards future generations? The question of potential long-term responsibilities disrupts our traditional ethics frameworks that deals with the consequences of our actions in the present time. How do we go on and conceive of a new form of risk and accountability such as the epigenetic one? Using the combined tools of ethnography (lab observation & interviews) and ethical analysis, we work on developing methods in ethics to address the particular epigenetic health risk faced by individuals from ancestral exposure. A closer understanding of the ethical status of germ cells in the context of epigenetics further matters at the double level of personal informed choices and public policy and regulation. The little public knowledge and discussion there is of germ cells stands in contrast with the marked interest of the public for questions of inter- and transgenerational inheritance. In a parallel way, germ cells have largely been left out of the regulatory landscape despite accumulating evidence that environmental exposures may affect the germline through epigenetic pathways.

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