Environmental consequences on the human genome: study shows that poverty is correlated with epigenetic processes

By Patrycja Sztachelski

A study at Northwestern University has found that lower socioeconomic status is associated with high levels of DNA methylation—specifically, at more than 2,500 sites, across more than 1,500 genes. The results of the study are particularly relevant in the nature vs. nurture debate, since research suggests that the environment shapes the structure and function of the human genome.

In the past, studies have shown that socioeconomic status (SES) is strongly correlated to human health and disease, since social inequality is undeniably a stressor for the human population. For example, lower educational attainment or income can place a person at higher risk for conditions including heart disease, diabetes, and many cancers and infectious diseases. Lower SES is also associated with physiological processes that intensify the development of disease.

In the study, researchers found that poverty affects nearly 10 percent of the genes in the genome, which is significant because the underlying mechanism that evolves gene expression in DNA is better understood, and there is irrefutable evidence that life experience shapes the human genome.

In the future, follow-up studies will be necessary to determine the exact health impacts of methylation at the sites the researchers identified. Many of the genes that have been studied are associated with responses to infection from the immune system, skeletal development, and development of the nervous system.


Northwestern University. (2019, April 4). Poverty leaves a mark on our genes: Study's findings challenge understandings of genes as fixed features of our biology. ScienceDaily. Retrieved April 7, 2019 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/04/190404135433.htm