Unfortunately, I can’t take credit for this catchy title. It was first used by the author Ethan Watters in a 2006 Discover publication in his article on the growing field of epigenetics.
So what is epigenetics? It is the study of changes produced in gene expression caused by mechanisms other than changes in the underlying DNA sequence (i.e. external forces in your environment).
Why is epigenetics so fascinating? Because it suggests that our environment from birth to death influences the expression of certain genes.
How can epigenetics influence gene expression? First, epigenetic change can influence the proteins called histones which are the building blocks of the double helix (i.e. our DNA). Alterations to this packaging cause certain genes to be more or less available. A second epigenetic change is DNA methylation. Attaching a methyl group – one carbon atom and three hydrogen atoms – to a particular base in the DNA sequence interferes with chemical signals that would put the gene into action.
What specifically in our enviornment can cause the alteration of histones and/or DNA methylation occur? Examples include, changes in diet and differences in the level of nurturing one receives as a newborn from their mother. It is remarkable that such simply changes and behaviours can alter the expression of certain genes.
What’s even more interesting is that these epigenetic changes can be passed down for generations. In the words of Watters, “what you eat and smoke today could affect the health and behaviour of your great-grandchildren”.
Over the next while I will dig deeper into the field of epigenetics. More specifically, I will discuss the role of diet and newborn nurturing and how such alterations can influence personality and/or our vulnerability to different forms of cancer.
Epigenetics challenges the notion that genes are fate. What an absolutely fascinating concept and area of research.
P.S. I will be away for the next wee while and thus, blog posts will be at a minimum. My sincerest apologies.
Watters E. 2006. DNA is Not Destiny. Discover (27);1-8.