Published on August 30th, 2014 | by Margaret Pardoe0
Epigenetics and You!
You are what you eat and drink, you are your lifestyle, you are what you think and believe and you are your microbiome!
Turns out you are also what your parents, grandparents, great-grandparents (and possibly even further back into your ancestry), ate, drank, lived, thought, believed and what their microbiome was like!
Epigenetics is relatively new science, seriously studied for only a couple of decades. And what is it? In a nutshell, it’s additional information which is layered on top of the sequence of strings of molecules that make up DNA. So, not only are you a product of your inherited genes and your lifestyle choices, you are also a product of your ancestors lifestyle and experiences.
Every cell in your body starts off with more or less the same DNA sequence. But a kidney cell doesn’t need to follow the same part of the “instruction manual” as a liver or brain cell. But this additional information – epigenetics – is different! This additional information isn’t fixed in the same way that the DNA sequence is. Some of this information can change throughout life, and in response to outside influences. Any outside stimulus that can be detected by the body has the potential to cause epigenetic modifications. And some can be inherited!
Studies of people whose ancestors survived through periods of starvation in Sweden and the Netherlands indicate that the effects of famine on health may influence at least three generations.
It’s possible that epigenetics will help us to understand much more about human health and disease.
Marcus Pembrey, emeritus professor of paediatric genetics at University College London, who was involved in the Swedish research said: “you don’t live your life just for yourself but also for your descendants. Although it is important to realise that transgenerational effects are for better as well as worse.”
New “epidemics” such as auto-immune disorders or diabetes might be traced back to epigenetic markers left generations ago. A study of rats at the Univeristy of Texas suggests that soaring obesity and autism rates in humans could be due to “the chemical revolution of the Forties” — and our grandparents’ exposure to new plastics, fertilisers and detergents. David Crews, professor of psychology and zoology says: “It’s as if the exposure three generations before has reprogrammed the brain.” There could also be implications to what we eat. Pregnant women nowadays are advised to take folic acid, vitamin B-12 and other nutrients containing “methyl groups”, as these are believed to decrease the risk of asthma and brain and spinal cord defects in the foetus.
There is also increasing evidence that certain cancers are caused by misplaced epigenetic tags. Molecular biologists at Temple University in Philadelphia are currently investigating a potential alternative to traditional chemotherapy i.e. treating cancer patients with drugs that “reprogramme” cancer cells by reconfiguring the epigenetic markers.
There is also growing research that suggests it’s not just physical characteristics or illnesses we might be passing onto future generations. It’s possible that our DNA might even be affected by behavioural epigenetics too.
If you have a science background you may be interested in this free course in epigenetics, and for those without a science background there are also free courses in genetics to bring you up to speed!