Every cell in our bodies encloses the same genetic data, a complete and exceptional blueprint that creates the person. What makes a brain cell differ from a heart cell, or any other cell is the activation and inactivation of certain genes. The study of learning the aspects that regulate the activity of genes is called epigenetics.
What is epigenetics?
Generally, most people understand what genetics is: this study`s subject is genome, its modifications, and the peculiarities of the transmission of specific features from one generation to another. Epigenetics is a branch of biology that studies such modifications in the genes’ activities, in which the structure of DNA stays the same.
The word “epigenetics” was first introduced in 1942 by Conrad Waddington, an English scientist. The scientist explained it as something that connects genetics and epigenesis, the doctrine of sequential embryonic development. His suggestion was extraordinary at those time but completely confirmed now.
Our genes are identical when we are young, old, healthy, or sick – they don’t just pass on their genome. How does this work? When we get old or under the weather, we experience the responses of our body to epigenetic changes. It has been proven for instance, that most chronic illnesses such as heart disorders and malignant neoplasm can be linked to modifications in epigenetic indicators. Equivalently, our surroundings and lifestyle define how our genome is adjusted to positive or negative environments. A person’s behavior, diet or daily routine impact which genes will increase or, conversely, weaken their activity. And – the most essential thing about it – this information can be inherited. Epigenetic processes begin before birth and continue throughout a person’s life. Unlike genetic data, epigenetic changes can be reproduced in three or four generations, and in the absence of triggers that stimulate them, they disappear.
Study on epigenetic cell memory
If only the genes were the key aspect that determines our developing, all people would be identical. Due to the epigenome, we do have different appearances and in the same family children have a bunch of unique features:
- are born with different hair structures and colors,
- with different eye colors,
- with or without being prone to weight gain or not, etc.
The impact of epigenetic factors on health was learned by Dutch and US researchers who analyzed the lives of elderly Dutch people born in the post-war period between 1945 and 1946. The malnutrition and war-related stress of their mothers have been discovered to have an adverse effect on the health of unborn children. They were born prematurely and very prone to vascular disorder, obesity, and type 2 diabetes. It is essential to mention that their children were also born prematurely, though the mothers’ nutrition was already balanced enough. This evidences that such changes can be passed on to the next generations.
What affects the human epigenome
The human epigenome is mainly impacted by lifestyle factors: the quality of diet, stress, sport, bad and good habits, etc. Nevertheless, many substances can also impact heredity. For instance, bisphenol-A, which is applied as a hardener in plastics, breaks free methyl groups and inhibits the enzymes that connect these groups with DNA. This substance contributes to getting breast, prostate, and testicular cancer, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and reproductive disorders among others. Additionally, some foods positively affect the epigenome: green tea, the majority of vegetables, and fruits. Should the person add them to his or her diet, the likelihood of getting cancer is reduced.
Interestingly, humans can find keys to gene control, and maybe we will be able to regulate such physical processes that occur in the body as aging. Genes can be under control by purposefully influencing their expression. This is the main modern approach to health betterment and life-prolonging. Due to directed gene expression, in the future, we could achieve mental superpower, renew organs and body systems, and stop aging. So far, this is only a suggestion that requires further investigation, but research is already in progress to stop the growth of cancer cells by controlling gene activities.
We are able to control epigenetic mechanisms to a certain degree through positive lifestyle changes. For instance, getting rid of the smoking habit increases DNA methylation. Taking folic acid while pregnant can reduce the risk of many birth defects in the baby. Or a balanced diet and regular sport also spur positive changes not only in your life but also further generations.