Revisiting EFSA@EXPO: How epigenetic changes affect our health

Hundreds of scientists, policy-makers and academics came together at EFSA’s second scientific conference from 14 to 16 October 2015 in Milan to discuss developments and challenges in food safety. With all video material now available online, in the coming weeks you can revisit the discussions held at the various conference sessions. What were the key topics in each of the sessions?  What were the main questions raised and which directions for new research were identified?

Science, innovation and society

The second plenary focused on the interplay between science, innovation and society. The four speakers presented topics which are currently the subject of major biological research. The findings resulting from this research are expected to impact on the way food-related regulatory risk assessment is conducted in the future.

A common theme of all four presentations was the importance of epigenetic changes for human health and life span. Epigenetic changes are changes in gene expression that are not caused by modifications in the DNA but by other factors including environmental, dietary, pharmaceutical, microbial and lifestyle aspects.

Gut bacteria and their impact on our health

The human gut hosts between 1,000 to 10,000 bacterial species containing more than five million genes. What impact does the microbiota have on human health and human disease?  Anne Salonen of the University of Helsinki said that major advances had been made in recent years in understanding the complexity of gut microbiota. One of the current challenges is to understand how different environmental and host factors modify the diversity of a person’s microbiota.

The impact of epigenetic factors on ageing

Longevity has increased markedly over the past 100 years. Pierluigi Nicotera of the German Centre for Neurodegenerative Diseases in Bonn, Germany, explained that studies suggest that epigenetic mechanisms are responsible for this prolonged life expectancy. But extended lifespans bring other risks to health and wellbeing. Longevity increases the vulnerability of the body’s genetic material to be affected by random errors or stress factors. 

What’s new in reproductive endocrinology?

The only purpose for our existence is reproduction, the process through which we pass our genes to the next generation. Richard M. Sharpe of Edinburgh University covered the most important recent developments in the research of human reproductive biology.  One of the key findings appears to be that we are not only the result of our genes but also of the lifestyle choices made by our parent and grandparents.

How the modern diet affects our health

The “One Health – One Planet” concept relates to the inter-connectedness of ecological, environmental, animal and human health. Picking up the epigenetic thread of the session, James Trosko of Michigan State University elaborated on the consequences for human health by the mismatch between slow biological evolution of our genes and the rapid changes in modern society, particularly related to nutrition and lifespan.  

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