The university I attended did not have one or two libraries, but six large libraries. The first time I set foot in these endless hallways of information I was overwhelmed to say the least. When I needed a particular reference for a project, I amazingly managed to find the exact item. I then proceeded to find the exact page I set out to find in that exact item.
Our genes work much like a library. They contain a plethora of information, and this information provides the body with instructions on how to operate. Your body can actually choose which genes to express, much like my library search. This phenomenon of “reading” specific genes is well recognized and has been given the name epigenetics.
In an article published in Time Magazine in 2010 entitled “Why Your DNA Isn’t Your Destiny,” the work of Dr. Lars Olov Bygren, a preventative-specialist and researcher, is discussed. Bygren studied the effects of feast and famine on children growing up in Norrbotten, Sweden, in the 1900’s. He discovered that the dietary and lifestyle conditions affected the genetic expression of not only the individual, but also their children and grandchildren. He concludes “it is through epigenetic[s]…that environmental factors like diet, stress and prenatal nutrition can make an imprint on genes that are passed from one generation to the next.”
There are many great examples of epigenetics…
In a bee hive there are thousands of worker bees that all serve one bee, the queen. The only difference between the queen bee and the worker bee is their food source. The queen bee is the only bee that is allowed to consume the protein-rich royal jelly. Although the queen bee is genetically identical to all of the other bees, she lives up to 28 times longer, grows 3 times larger, and lays about 2000 eggs when she is most fertile!
Another example of epigenetics is demonstrated with the metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a butterfly. The caterpillar closes itself in a cocoon at which time it completely dissolves then reforms into a butterfly. The caterpillar has the exact same genes as the butterfly but the genes are expressed differently depending on its life stage.
We’ve also been able to manipulate genes with certain nutrients in a controlled setting. For example, these two mice (see below) have the exact same genes. The difference between the two is that one mouse was deprived of important nutrients called methylators (vitamin B12 and folic acid) and ended up becoming obese. While the other mouse was given all of the essential nutrients and remained lean and healthy. 1
We can also see the ravages of recreational drugs on the human genome, making people age much quicker than they should.
Recreational drugs are not the only drugs we need to be worried about. Prescription medication affects our genes in many ways we don’t fully understand. Take the case of Accutane (Isotretinoin) for example. It has been prescribed to millions of people for the treatment of acne. Twenty-seven years after Dr. Gary Peck discovered its use for treating acne (and receiving an inventor’s award for this from the US Public Health Service), pharmaceutical company Hoffman-La Roche decided to remove the drug from the US market after an overwhelming amount of claims from those who developed inflammatory bowel disease. There is currently a class-action lawsuit against the company.
Here’s a graph depicting the epigenetic effects of Accutane. 2
We’ve also recorded some great examples of genes being influenced in a positive way to promote healing. By using dietary and lifestyle interventions both the PSA value and prostate size of this individual was altered (see below). We can even see that 31 specific genes were positively altered in their expression. 3
Epigenetics tells us that we are in control of our genetic destiny. For the most part it doesn’t matter what genes you inherit, but more importantly it matters how they are expressed. By choosing a healthy diet and lifestyle, we influence optimal genetic expression for ourselves and generations to come.
- WATERLAND, A. and JIRTLE, R. (2003) Transposable Elements: Targets for Early Nutritional Effects on Epigenetic Gene Regulation, American Society for Microbiology, 23(15):5293-5300 ↩
- Dermatoendocrinol. 2009 May-Jun; 1(3): 177–187. ↩
- Ornish D et al. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA. 2008: 105: 8369-8374 ↩