Epigenetics: How our genes are always changing

At one point in our lives we have all heard genes play a large part in our destiny. Yet we have seen or heard of identical twins who have gone to live extremely different lives. It is quite evident that our genes aren’t everything. Indeed the unprecedentedly increasing rates of obesity and diabetes in Australia clearly demonstrate that our choices in diet and sedentary lifestyles are impacting our health.

Yet perhaps more unnervingly, it appears that these same choices, behaviors and environments are physically changing the expression of our genes. Furthermore it appears that these changes in gene expression can be passed down to our future children.

For example in areas recently struck by famine, researchers observed that undernourished children continued to live in poor health even many years after the famine. Moreover when these people had children of their own these children also suffered from susceptible health despite being well fed. The children’s children likewise experienced defective health.

Thus it appears it is no longer simply “you are what you eat” nor “your health is how much you exercise or don’t exercise” but instead you are what your mother ate, or how much exercise your grandparents did. Likewise the genes of your future children are impacted by the daily decisions you make.

This is one of the newest fields of research and is termed “epigenetics”.

Epigeneticist Dr. Virender Rehan, from the Los Angeles Biomedical Research Institute, studied the intergenerational effects of nicotine. In essence Dr. Rehan demonstrated that if nicotine was exposed to pregnant rats the offspring will develop asthma due to the drug, and so will the offspring of the offspring. And although the experiment was conducted with rats, the researchers suspect a similar result would occur in humans.

Other research has suggested that exercise might change the epigenetics in muscle cells and fat cells. That is, in the people who exercised, their muscle and fat cells began to physically process sugars and fats in a more health-inducive manner. Thus exercise appears to not only reduce heart rate, lower blood pressure, and reduce cholesterol levels but also change one’s epigenome.

It must be noted however that epigenticists emphasize that the DNA sequence is not permanently altered. Instead the inherited epigenetic characteristics seem to be reversible. However the concept that acquired characteristics can be inherited is still significant. Indeed it is undeniably eye-opening that the choices you make today could genetically influence the many generations to come.

Kenneth Cho

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