Putting Together The Pieces of Genes, Behavior, and Environment

The theme of this year’s #EPILifestyle19 conference was “Genes, Behavior, Environment: Putting the Pieces Together.” The three speakers in the first session, Dr Eric Boerwinkle, Dr Leslie Lytle, and Dr Michael Jerrett presented a cohesive program truly reflecting putting the pieces together.

Dr Eric Boerwinkle genetic researcher, dean, and chair of public health at the UTHealth School of Public Health, kicked things off with a hearty welcome to Houston, and applauding the audience for braving the city during the annual Houston Rodeo. Dr. Boerwinkle’s talk was marked by sincerity and focused passion for precision health and precision prevention – terms to replace “precision medicine” – that mirrors the AHA’s focus on cardiovascular health over cardiovascular disease.


He highlighted that genetics, environment, and lifestyle behaviors can be envisioned in several ways, depending on perspective and discipline. A key challenge in producing science focused on fitting these pieces together is measurement. Variables are often measured separately and differently across disciplines, and no matter the metaphor, Boerwinkle encouraged the audience to step out of their silos and begin measuring key variables together. Dr Leslie Lytle of UNC Chapel Hill Gillings School of Public Health provided a concrete example with the ADOPT project for obesity treatment, which identified high-priority measures to measure across biology, behavior, psychosocial, and environmental processes.

Transitioning from genetics to lifestyle behaviors, Boerwinkle highlighted research finding that even in genetically high-risk patients, modifying environmental factors and lifestyle behaviors can lower risk.

Dr. Leslie Lytle, professor in the department of Health Behavior at UNC Chapel Hill, situated her talk in the puzzle piece landscape by contrasting the NIH’s position on the importance of intervention research with the dismal percent of funding dollars that actually go towards intervention research.

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After emphasizing the importance of intervention research to address the lifestyle and behavioral challenges of poor cardiovascular health, particularly obesity, Dr. Lytle showed us what intervention research should look like and what it can accomplish. Combining environment-level interventions based on socioecological models with individual level education can effect change, like in in the CATCH intervention, which involved child-level education, positive social modeling, and healthy changes in physical activity and school meals.

Over the past few years, the “exposome” concept has only gained popularity, along with the “-omics” trend. Wrapping up the themed session with environmental factors, Dr Michael Jerrett of UCLA School of Public Health taught us about characterizing the exposome by incorporating hyper-spatiotemporal components into research to assign exposure. What are hyper-spatiotemporal components? These components measure where people go during the day, what the pollution level is there, what they are doing and how it affects their exposure (walking in a park, biking behind a diesel truck, sitting in a car).

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Jerrett highlighted several studies examining these concepts, comparing the inhaled pollutants when biking, walking, or commuting by car to work in various areas of a city. How can we measure these spatiotemporal components in a “ubicomp” (ubiquitous computing) environment? Jerrett broke down the inside of our smart phones, calling attention to the numerous sensors present in nearly every smart phone and the research possibilities to harness these.