The field of epigenetics is a relatively young field that you may or may not have heard about. After reading this post you will have a better understanding of what the field of epigenetics is, how it affects you, and how discoveries and research in this field can benefit humanity. The field of epigenetics has been a window into how our individual development occurs. Through this window we have been able to look into the mechanisms of how we came to be and what we could yet potentially become in the future. Epigenetics is the study of the interaction of our
genetic code and the environment which can ultimately affect an individual’s behavior.
To better grasp the concept of epigenetics a basic understanding of our genetic code is helpful. Genotype refers to our entire DNA sequence, one might think of it as a gathering of ingredients for a recipe that is an individual, and phenotype refers to the expression or specific representation of our genetic code, which can be thought of as the finished recipe that has all the ingredients mixed together in varying amounts. If the recipe has a lot of salt the dish will be salty, too much sugar and it will be too sweet, but differences in the amount of ingredients of a recipe will produce different flavors, i.e. individuals. Different recipes will result in individuals with different body types, different physical markers such as hair color and eye color. These differing recipes will also change the way an individuals personality might turn out compared to a different recipe.
The prefix “epi” of epigenetics comes from Latin and means “above” or “on top of”, so the term epigenetics means “above the genes”. This refers to the methyl-markers that are placed on our DNA that act as markers to tell genes whether or not to be expressed. In a paper by The way in which the different amounts of ingredients in the recipe of an individual is through a mechanism know as methylation. The main idea that needs to be understood about methylation is that the mechanism is comparable to a switch on
our genotype, in other words, our genetic code(DNA). A part of our genetic code being affected by methylation is the act of turning off an gene which does not allow it to be expressed. For example, if the gene for blue eyes was to be acted upon by methylation, then that individual would not have blue eyes.
There are many factors by which our genetic code is acted upon by methylation. These factors are environmental factors. The environmental factors include: life
experiences (positive or negative), diet, health, stress levels, toxins, or nutrients received from the environment around us. Those toxins can include smoking, excessive sun exposure, illicit drug use, poor air quality, and possible toxic areas like living near a nuclear power-plant or factories that use unsafe chemicals. Nutrients can refer not only to eating the proper amount of food but the quality of food that an individual consumes. In a TedX talk by Pamela Peeke, M.D. she discusses how these factors play a role in how our genetic code is expressed resulting in the overall individual or phenotype. Not only can our environment effect us, but our parents and grandparents environment is able to affect the individuals that we may become. In an article in Psychology Today by D.M. Kushner , she refers to a study of the Dutch famine of 1944-1945 where the mothers that gave birth during the famine had babies with low birth weight, but when the women born with low birth weight gave birth to children of their own, those children had higher likelihood of being obese. Because of
epigenetics being able to affect not only ourselves but our future generations it is important to inform ourselves about the field of epigenetics so that we might influence the health of generations to come. The more informed we are will lead to better self-care and with better self-care we can become healthier and live fuller and more enriched lives.
The present research has been looking into how the interaction of the environment and our DNA results in the phenotypic expression of ailments such as cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and mental illnesses such as depression and schizophrenia. While the future of epigenetics is looking into treating or coming up with treatment plans to prevent, manage, or possibly even cure ailments through
managing the parts of our DNA that is being expressed and activated through environmental factors. These treatment plans include synthetic drug development, awareness of environmental effects, or plans that call for a lifestyle change. The development of epigenetics has been revolutionary because this field has all of these possibilities for providing answers and insight. In David S. Moore’s book “The Developing Genome: An Introduction to Behavioral Epigenetics” he refers to the fact that there is much that we have yet to learn from the field of epigenetics, but the field is growing by leaps and bounds every year. In his book Moore discusses the possible implications of the answers that study of epigenetics can provide. These answers just might bring us closer to those ideas that we see in science fiction into reality. Because of all of these exciting possibilities the field of epigenetics is most definitely a field that one will want to keep their eye on.