DNA Is Not Destiny

How the Outside Gets Under the Skin

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Discoveries in the exciting new field of epigenetics suggest that fetal and early child environments literally become part of us. Experiences, scientists have learned, can leave chemical marks, called the epigenome, on our DNA, especially during the early years. The epigenome acts like a dimmer switch or volume control, turning genes on or off, making them shout or whisper. In so doing, they change the way our brains and bodies function--with enduring consequences for behaviors and mental and physical health.

The genes we’re born with don’t change, but the settings of the epigenome – and hence gene expression—can, especially during critical periods like gestation, the early years and the onset of puberty.

In animal and human studies, the diets of pregnant mothers, toxic exposures, trauma, parental neglect, poverty, and even the everyday stressors faced by middle and low income parents have been linked to epigenetic changes in babies.

These modifications of their epigenomes have in turn been associated with a host of knock-on effects: anxiety, depression, poor learning, obesity, substance abuse and even cancers. They can change the course of a child’s life.

DNA Is Not Destiny considers the profound social and political implications of these discoveries. If social environments can change our epigenetic settings, and hence alter the way our genes work, then early environments can help or hinder child success and wellbeing in ways that go beyond the individual choices we make.

We can’t change our genes. But we can change the environments which modify our epigenomes. The science, says Marie Lynn Miranda, environmental researcher and provost of Rice University, is clear: improved social conditions can provide the biological foundation for healthier, more resilient and successful lives.


Dana Dolinoy

Environmental Epigenetics and Nutrition Lab, University of Michigan School of Public Health

Marilyn Essex

Director, Life Stress and Human Development Lab, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Darlene Francis

Behavioral Neuroscientist, University of California, Berkeley

Michael S. Kobor

Canada Research Chair in Social Epigenetics, University of British Columbia

Michael Meaney

Sackler Program for Epigenetics & Psychobiology, McGill University

Marie Lynn Miranda

Provost, Environmental Health Researcher, Rice University




Peter Frumkin and Bill Lattanzi


Peter Frumkin

Executive Producers

Larry Adelman and Christine Herbes-Sommers

Supervising Producer

Wendy Riseborough

Associate Producer

Kelly Thomson, Leigh Lanocha and Heather Merrill


Bill Lattanzi


Llewellyn Smith

Additional Editing

Charles Scott

Music by

OBT Music: Tom Phillips, Tom Martin, Louis Weeks and APM

Directors of Photography

Dakin Henderson, Allie Humenuk and Bill Kerrigan


Jamie Scarpuzza and Michael Vezina


Albinson Design

Opening Titles

Eric Smith of Free Range Studios

Spanish Language Version

Sabrina Avilés, Producer

Spanish Translations

Adriana Sibaja of Meaning


MT-S.T.A.T. and Leslie Strain

Post Production Facility


Series Associate Producer and Director of Public Engagement

Rachel Poulain

Series Creator and Executive Producer

Larry Adelman



  • Corbis
  • Getty Images
  • Jacobs Foundation
  • Randy Jirtle and Dana Dolinoy
  • Steve Liss / AmericanPoverty.org
  • National Human Genome Research Institute
  • Nimia
  • Royal Brompton & Harefield NHS Foundation Trust
  • The Society for Research in Child Development, Inc.
  • Shutterstock
  • T3Media
  • Tie Yuan Zhang (Douglas Hospital Research Centre)


  • Nancy Adler
  • Jeffrey Armstrong
  • Balderrama Marcos Family
  • Susan Bales
  • Jane Bertrand
  • Stephen Bezruchka
  • Rasmus Birn
  • Tom Boyce
  • Paula Braveman
  • Jeanne Brooks-Gunn
  • Cory Burghy
  • Diane Bussan
  • Victor Carrion
  • Carter Family
  • Jeremy Coplan
  • Richard J. Davidson
  • Larry Feig
  • Richard Francis
  • Neal Halfon
  • Andrea Hayes
  • Ryan Herringa
  • Clyde Hertzman
  • Margaret Lock
  • Michael Lu
  • Bruce McEwen
  • Moughan Family
  • Marcus Pembrey
  • Oliver Rando
  • John Rich
  • Sanford Family
  • Michael Skinner
  • S. Leonard Syme
  • Kereshmeh Taravosh-Lahn
  • Lawrence Wallack
  • David R. Williams


  • Nancy Adler
  • Jeffrey Armstrong
  • Balderrama Marcos Family
  • Susan Bales
  • Jane Bertrand
  • Stephen Bezruchka
  • Rasmus Birn
  • Tom Boyce
  • Paula Braveman
  • Jeanne Brooks-Gunn
  • Brendan Carroll
  • Center on the Developing Child
  • Steve Clermont
  • Steffanie Clothier
  • Lawrence Daressa
  • Leo Delaney
  • Lori Dorfman
  • Mario Drummonds
  • Helen Epstein
  • Brent Ewig
  • Frank Farrow
  • Lynette Fraga
  • FrameWorks Institute
  • Michael Fraser
  • Deborah Frazier
  • Sandi Galvez
  • Piia Hanson
  • Christine James-Brown
  • Caitlin Johnson
  • Jodie Levin-Epstein
  • Carmela Lomonaco
  • Bertram Lubin
  • Magnolia Place
  • Reshma Mahendra
  • Vicky Marchand
  • Jim Mayer
  • Matthew Melmed
  • Lisa Cylar Miller
  • Cornelius Moore
  • Kris Perry
  • Michael Petit
  • Robert Prentice
  • Al Race
  • Gillian Ray
  • Claire Reidy
  • Vicki Shabo
  • Joanna Shoffner Scott
  • Jack Shonkoff
  • Maria Teixeira
  • Aiyauna Terry
  • Calondra Tibbs
  • Charlotte von Hemert


  • Bill Bentley
  • Amy Fine
  • Darlene Francis
  • Richard Hofrichter
  • Nancy Krieger
  • Gwen McKinney
  • Marilyn Metzler
  • McGill University
  • School of Public Health, University of Michigan
  • University of British Columbia
  • University of California, Berkeley
  • University of Wisconsin, Madison