Updated on June 16th, 2019
Since the evolution of genetic science, we have defaulted to equate genetics with destiny.
We’ve considered genes as the “cards life dealt us” at birth. Those with excellent genes thrived with little effort, while those with average genes survived with heroic struggle — but now the science of epigenetics has added a plot twist.
We’ve discovered two things: first, we oversimplified the story; and, second, we may have far more choice than we imagined in shaping our destiny.
Here at YourDNA, we want to take the mystery out of epigenetics so you and your family can take back control of the nature-vs-nurture narrative of your life that may limit your potential.
What Is Epigenetics?
In a nutshell, epigenetics is the story of genetic regulation. Understanding it helps us understand how the environment influences our genes. While there is little we can do to upgrade our genes, there is plenty we can do to turn them on or off.
We can define epigenetics as a study of the bio-mechanisms that switch genes either on or off.
An epigenetic effect occurs after a cell reads a gene to decide if it should produce a specific protein. For instance, all cells have the COL1A1 gene, but only skin cells create Type 1 collagen proteins.
How Does Epigenetics Work?
Since epigenetics is complex, you’ll need a crash course in genetics first to make sense of it.
In molecular biology, there is a central dogma. Here are some of its basic principles:
- Every human being has a vast collection of working units called cells. Each cell gets its instructions on how to work from a chemical called deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA.
- Every human has about 3 billion nucleotide bases, and there are four fundamental bases that make DNA — adenine, cytosine, guanine, and thymine. To keep molecular analysis simple, biologists abbreviate them by their first letter: so they call them A, C, G, and T.
- Just as the order of letters in a language makes an intelligible word, the order of the bases provides cells with instructions.
- Genes result from bases. So, within 3 billion bases are 20,000 genes. (As a side-note we are not that different from apes. Only a small fraction of our DNA sequence differentiates us from chimpanzees.)
- The work of genes is to provide instructions; specifically, instructions on how to make proteins. Proteins are complex molecules whose mission is to trigger biological actions to perform organic life functions.
Now that you understand genetics (at least in basic terms), let’s look at epigenetics.
Epigenetics alters genetic activity based on environmental factors. Here is a famous example:
During the winter of 1944 to 1945, there was a Dutch famine because of the German occupation in the Netherlands. Historians refer to this tragic time as the “Hunger Winter.”
Geneticists found that children in their mother’s womb during the famine had less DNA methylation of the IGF2 gene (the insulin-like growth factor II gene). Prenatal exposure to the conditions of famine affected the structure of their DNA.
Children whose mothers experienced that year of extreme hardship had a higher rate of obesity than Dutch children whose mothers were not pregnant during the famine. When these children became adults, geneticists also found them to be more likely to have heart problems and schizophrenia.
Why Is Epigenetics Important?
Scientists do not restrict epigenetic effects to prenatal conditions. Epigenetics also affect genes after birth. Genes may not be in a developmental phase, but our biochemistry can switch existing genes on or off.
Chemical modifications around genes can occur based on diverse factors.
Biochemistry can switch genes on or off under all kinds of environmental conditions. Cancer, for instance, can switch genes from a normal state to an unhealthy state while improving dietary choices can switch genes from an unhealthy state to a healthy state.
The ability of genes to turn on or off can happen in more subtle ways, too. Why do some people hate mushrooms, while others love them? These preferences may have to do with epigenetics.
Researchers do not confine epigenetics to biological issues, health conditions or dietary tastes alone. Epigenetics can also result in behavioral ones, too. Some people may be more social than others because positive childhood influences may have switched on genes associated with human connectivity.
Epigenetics may be a significant reason for every human’s unique predispositions.
What Can Epigenetics Be Used For?
The applied science of epigenetics could be revolutionary. It could, for example, play a huge role in child development.
Our current understanding of raising children is rather naïve. We limit our understanding of child-raising and education to the principles of psychology, but biology may play a far more significant role in bringing out human potential.
A broader understanding of epigenetics could influence how we design our environments and make lifestyle choices. By knowing about the relationship between the genome and environmental stimulus, we can engineer epigenetic changes.
Also, epigenetic effects don’t just occur in unborn babies or in children but can occur at any stage in a person’s life.
Why Is Everyone Talking About Epigenetics?
Epigenetics may be one of the most explosive fields in the life sciences because it could cause far-reaching effects on every aspect of human culture.
Scientific studies and academic journals are on a quest to fill in gaps in scientific knowledge and the more discerning media is trying to disseminate their exciting conclusions quickly and widely.
This may be one of those few incidents in human affairs where the hype can’t even live up to the promises of a discovery. The science of epigenetics could rewrite our understanding of how life works.