What the science of epigenetics means for your children and grandchildren.
Today we are experiencing a series of strange epidemics in terrifying proportions. As illnesses like diabetes, autoimmune disorders, and cancers are rising at an alarming rate, it’s left many to wonder why these diseases weren’t as prevalent in previous generations?
New research shows robust evidence that not only do we inherit DNA from our parents, but we also inherited epigenetic instructions that regulate our gene expression.
In Part 1 of this post, we will explore the What and Why of genetic expression. Explaining the process of the human genome and how it gets its marching orders is essential to understanding How we can biohack our environment and by doing so, activate our most favorable genes.
For years, scientists have known about genetic traits being passed down through generations. In the case of humans, this has taken thousands of years and a multitude of trial and error to develop us into what we are today. Many of us are familiar with the human genome: a double helix DNA code that is uniquely yours unless you have an identical twin. But there’s another layer of complexity responsible for creating us — and that’s the epigenome.
Since the 1970s’ researchers have been studying how aspects of our lifestyle and environment are passed on to our offspring. This can determine how long you, your children, and grandchildren will live and can affect health in ways we may have never imagined.
We are more than the sum of our genes
The epigenome, meaning above the genome, is made up of chemical compounds that are like a set of instructions for the genome, it tells it what to do.
While the epigenome doesn’t change your DNA, it decides how much or whether certain genes are expressed or activated. It oversees what happens to our genes over the course of our lifetime.
There are billions of cells in the human body and every one of them contain your unique DNA. But just because our cells have our DNA doesn’t mean that they know what to do with it. The epigenome gives the genome instructions and when epigenetic compounds attach to DNA and modify its function, they are said to have marked or tagged the genome.
These epigenetic tags do not change the sequence of DNA, but they change the set of instructions for DNA.
You can think of the DNA or genome as the hardware to a computer and the epigenome as the software.
While our DNA will stay the same throughout our lives, the epigenetic tags will change and they decide what genes get expressed, or turned on. The epigenome is not permeant. It can change throughout our lifetime and change over time. As in the case of puberty, pregnancy, traumatic stress, or during times when the body is going through substantial changes.
How does the DNA get instructions from the epigenome?
The instructions are delivered by means of methyl groups and histones.
- Compounds called methyl groups control the genome by binding to a gene and telling it what to do.
- Proteins called histones are like the spool that DNA winds itself around. Histones determine how tightly or loosely the DNA is wound around them. If they are loosely wound, then the genes can express more and genes that are tightly wound, they express less.
Methyl groups are like a switch the histones are like a knob.
Every cell in your body has a distinct methylation and histone pattern. This gives every cell its plan of action.
Now, back to that identical twin you may have. You both may share the same identical DNA, but if you had very different lifestyles, your genes would express differently. A fitting example would be that if your genome was a paragraph, all the letters would be in the exact same order but the spaces and punctuation are different — changing the message of that paragraph.
Scientists have found that things like a bad diet can lead to methyl groups binding to the wrong place and making mistakes. With those bad instructions, cells become abnormal and may develop into disease.
How can mothers (and grandmothers) pass on epigenetic changes?
Until recently, it was thought that the slate was wiped clean and these genetic markers or tags were not passed on to our offspring, but that is now changing. It turns out that, in reproduction, epigenetic information is not only inherited from one generation to another but also important for the development of the embryo itself. We inherit more than just genes from our parents. It seems to be that we also get fine-tuned as well as important gene regulation machinery that can be influenced by our own environment and lifestyle.
We are only just beginning to understand the complexity of epigenetics and the human genome. It’s only in the last 20 years that we’ve even known what effect these epigenetic tags are having on our DNA.
Bad epigenetic information is being passed from generation to generation. Your grandmother’s diet, your birth, your mother’s stress level, all of this can affect you today.
What a mother does while she is pregnant can impact on the epigenome of her developing baby.
And, if a mother is carrying a female, the baby’s lifetime supply of eggs is created when she’s growing in her mother’s womb, it can also have an impact on these eggs, and eventually the children they may become.
In this way, the activity of the pregnant mother can touch the lives of even her great-grandchildren.
A well-documented case in the Netherlands during WWII shows that when food supplies were cut off, babies born to women during this time had a lower birth weight. When those babies grew up and had their own babies, the third generation had significantly more problems with diabetes and obesity.
Fathers could transfer epigenetic changes to their children, and possibly grandchildren through changes to sperm around the time of conception, although most of our current evidence for this comes from studies in mice and rats.
We once thought that genes were the end all be all but now we know that we can control our epigenetic code by biohacking our bodies and environment. These epigenetic changes affect our cells and how they function and therefore our health — both positively and negatively.
In Part 2, we will explore how we can rewrite our epigenetic code to activate our most favorable genes. This can optimize our health, the health of our children and could even fix people before they’re conceived.
Want to get started biohacking your health?
And don’t forget to read the accompanying blog post series, Biohacking My Way to Better Health: