Epigenetic clocks are the latest biological test capturing the attention of the scientific community, governmental agencies and private companies because of their potential to reveal the person’s ‘true’ age. Epigenetic clocks come from the epigenetic field, which examines the function of chemical marks in regulating the gene expression and helps in understanding the aging and disease processes.
Epigenetics is the study of phenotype changes caused by a modification in the gene expression rather than the changes in the sequence of DNA. If considering the genes as light bulbs, epigenetic marks can push the dimmer switch up or down but can’t change the light color.
Some epigenetics marks change in response to the lifestyle and environment. Epigenetic tests give information about the person that a genetic test alone can’t tell, such as exposure to stress, trauma, diet or pollutants. Other epigenetic marks change in a constant fashion as the individual grows and ages. These epigenetic marks have enables the development of epigenetic age tests. This test is also known as epigenetic clocks, the first epigenetic tests which are available for use.
From the past two years, the companies including Chronomics and MyDNage are selling epigenetic age tests to the general public online. The life insurance company, YouSourance announced that they would be conducting epigenetic age tests of their policyholders to assign them to specific risk groups.
Forensic scientists and researchers are also contemplating about the epigenetic tests if they could help them in determining the true age of suspected criminals.
The Kobar Lab recently developed the first pediatric epigenetic clock, specifically designed for testing the age of youngsters, with an eye towards its use in the research areas and medical settings. This test requires a small sample of cells easily collected from the cheek swab. It can predict the child’s age with the degree of precision within four months.
The pediatric epigenetic clocks also have non-medical applications. They could soon be used in immigration cases to determine the true age of undocumented migrants. In the future, it could be used for the surveillance of child labor and trafficking cases and also for the identification of the child assailants in armed conflicts.
The researchers in sociology, bioethics, and medical genetics are interested in knowing the potential risks and benefits of this interesting and controversial latest technology for individuals and society.
Most of the epigenetic tests have not yet been scientifically proven to confirm their accuracy and precision in different sub-groups of the population. The legal, ethical and social implications of the use of these tests are not well understood. To date, there have been many attempts but there is no official report of any immigration agency or police force using epigenetic clocks in resolving challenging criminal cases.
Researchers have been approached by the governmental agencies who are interested in using the pediatric epigenetic clocks particularly, and by the migrants who are looking for ways to prove their undocumented child’s age.
The promises of epigenetics that widely circulate in the public discourse include the potential of controlling the genetic predisposition such as a disease risk through lifestyle. Consumers should be aware of the current scientific limitations also about increasing privacy and non-discrimination concerns.
Ethical guidelines, standards of practice and regulations are critically required to ensure the responsible application of epigenetic clocks. There is an urgent need to protect children and caregivers from socially inappropriate uses of the epigenetic tests to ensure that their promises are realized with the best interest in mind.