DNA methylation, early life environment, and health outcomes.
Epigenetics, and especially DNA methylation, have recently become provocative biological explanations for early-life environmental effects on later health. Despite the large increase in papers on the topic over the last few years, many questions remain with regards to the biological feasibility of this mechanism and the strength of the evidence to date. In this review, we examine the literature on early-life effects on epigenetic patterns, with special emphasis on social environmental influences. First, we review the basic biology of epigenetic modification of DNA and debate the role of early-life stressful, protective, and positive environments on gene-specific, system-specific, and whole-genome epigenetic patterns later in life. Second, we compare the epigenetic literatures of both humans and other animals and review the research linking epigenetic patterns to health in order to complete the mechanistic pathway. Third, we discuss physical environmental and social environmental effects, which have to date, generally not been jointly considered. Finally, we close with a discussion of the current state of the area's research, its future direction, and its potential use in pediatric health.