Twin research in the post-genomic era: Dissecting the pathophysiological effects of adversity and the social environment.
- Immune Endocrine and Epigenetics
The role of twins in research is evolving as we move further into the post-genomic era. With the re-definition of what a gene is, it is becoming clear that biological family members who share a specific genetic variant may well not have a similar risk for future disease. This has somewhat invalidated the prior rationale for twin studies. Case co-twin study designs, however, are slowly emerging as the ideal tool to identify both environmentally induced epigenetic marks and epigenetic disease-associated processes. Here, we propose that twin lives are not as identical as commonly assumed and that the case co-twin study design can be used to investigate the effects of the adult social environment. We present the elements in the (social) environment that are likely to affect the epigenome and measures in which twins may diverge. Using data from the German TwinLife registry, we confirm divergence in both the events that occur and the salience for the individual start as early as age 11. Case co-twin studies allow for the exploitation of these divergences, permitting the investigation of the role of not only the adult social environment, but also the salience of an event or environment for the individual, in determining lifelong health trajectories. In cases like social adversity where it is clearly not possible to perform a randomised-controlled trial, we propose that the case co-twin study design is the most rigorous manner with which to investigate epigenetic mechanisms encoding environmental exposure. The role of the case co-twin design will continue to evolve, as we argue that it will permit causal inference from observational data.