Epigenetics: even Dr Oz is talking about it

A couple of days ago as I waited in line to buy a few groceries the cover of  Time Magazine among the tabloids caught my eye. The cover article was titled, “Why Your DNA Isn’t Your Destiny.” It turns out the article is about epigenetics, another one of the processes that produce options and variations in genetic impact. (A few days ago I mentioned RNA editing and how it affects gene expression.)

For a long time life scientists have debated whether some diseases or behaviors are a matter of “nature” or “nurture.” And if diseases — like various cancers — have a component of nurture (environmentally affected) how does that happen? Epigenetics is a kit of processes that modify how genes are expressed without permanently modifying the DNA that’s passed down generation after generation. Epigenetics is sort of the go-between of the nature v s. nurture conundrum. It’s another way genetics gets variability and complexity.

The odd thing about epigenetics is that things in the environment such as drugs or chemicals can change the chemical environment of DNA inside the nucleus of cells causing additional molecules (called methylation) to attach themselves to the DNA and change its expression. The result is cell characteristics that are different from unaffected genetic expression. Also these modifiers can be passed from parent to offspring, but they don’t change the DNA. The Time article says:

Can epigenetic changes be permanent? Possibly, but it’s important to remember that epigenetics isn’t evolution. It doesn’t change DNA. Epigenetic changes represent a biological response to an environmental stressor. That response can be inherited through many generations via epigenetic marks, but if you remove the environmental pressure, the epigenetic marks will eventually fade, and the DNA code will — over time — begin to revert to its original programming. That’s the current thinking, anyway: that only natural selection causes permanent genetic change.

Once again we find that the rather simplistic ideas that scientists had a few years ago about how genes turn into organisms needs to be further explored in light of this rather subtle process. All of these complicating factor might ultimately lead to disease solutions, but it’s going to take some time.

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6 Responses to “Epigenetics: even Dr Oz is talking about it”

  1. 1 dfcollin
    January 27, 2010 at 11:33 am

    Ha! Thanks for the feedback, Stellie. I’m trying to strike a balance between communicating stuff most people don’t know and being “folksy” as on old friend of mine said. Then, sometimes the technical style is a kind of shield against my insecurity: keep people at a distance. I’ll have to think about that.

  2. May 21, 2013 at 1:20 pm

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  3. October 18, 2013 at 12:39 am

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