Welcome to Family Histories, a series of guest posts by some of my favorite bloggers in which they explore family . . . and history. The families and the histories are sometimes the writers’ own and sometimes not.
Joining us today to share his fascinating study of genetic memory is the writer PAUL WHITE. Please be sure to read about how his interest in character development leads him along such interesting paths of research at the end of this piece.
You are EPIGENEIC, and you never knew.
I bet you have never even heard this word before, EPIGENEIC. You may not have heard of Epigenetics either… until now.
Do not worry, you are not alone.
It has been generally accepted you are what you are; that the genes you were born with are what dictate your life, your health, intelligence and destiny.
Therefore, you are your DNA, period.
But, new scientific studies are challenging this perception.
Towards the end of the Second World War the allies attempted to relieve the Dutch from Nazi occupation in an operation codenamed ‘Market Garden’. It was a massive failure, leaving the Netherlands to face one of the severest winters on record. For over six months it is estimated over 22,000 people died from malnutrition and thousands of babies were born severely underweight.
Scientific research of these meticulous records in recent years, showed the latent health effects of parental exposure to famine and the infants who survived were also more susceptible to health issues.
But what fascinated the researchers most was finding a curious anomaly; these children’s own children, born many years later, were also significantly underweight. It seemed the wartime famine had ‘scarred’ the victim’s DNA.
We have for decades been told, we are what we eat, we are what we drink, we are how little, or how much, exercise we undertake, and we are whatever toxins we imbibe. Health experts have been constantly telling us we are a product of our own lifestyle.
But now, you may find you might be what your Mother ate, your Farther drank and what your grandparents smoked.
Your own children may well be shaped by you own lifestyle, be it jogging around the block each evening, or pigging out on chocolate each night while lazing on the sofa. It is self-nurture, rather than our nature, which seems to play a far greater part in determining what we are than was ever previously thought.
That brings me nicely to a word that many may not have heard before, Epigenetics, which is a relatively new scientific field.
Ernest research only began in the mid Nineties. However, Epigenetics is already offering explanations of how our diets, stress levels at work, one-off traumatic experiences and exposure to toxins might be subtly altering our genetic legacy; the gene pool we pass on to our children and grandchildren.
Epigenetics is opening new avenues into explaining, solving, and finding cures for illnesses which cannot be explained by genes alone. These range from Autism to Cancers.
As long ago as the Nineteen Fifties, biologists had theorised ‘something’ besides the DNA sequence alone was responsible for ‘expressing’ what came out.
Adrian Bird, Professor of Genetics at the University of Edinburgh, explained, “We knew there are millions of markers on your DNA and on the Proteins that sit on your DNA. What are they doing there? What is their function? How do they help genes work, or stop them working?”
The last few years have revealed, in far greater detail, the vast array of molecular mechanisms affecting the activity of genes. This research also discovered your DNA itself might not be static, but could be modified by these biological markers.
The chief of these markers are called ‘Methyl Groups’, tiny Carbon-Hydrogen instruction packs that bind to a gene and say, ‘Ignore this bit’ or ‘exaggerate this part’. This is termed Methylation, it is how a cell knows it needs to grow into an eyeball of even a toenail.
In addition, there are ’Histones’, these control how tightly the DNA is spooled around its central thread, and therefore how readable the information is. It is these two Epigenetic controls which give the cell its orders, rather like an on/off switch and a volume control.
Except this epigenetic interpretation of your DNA is not fixed, it can alter dramatically. This alteration is not solely subject to dramatic life changes, like puberty or pregnancy. Research has found it can also be altered due to environmental factors, such as stress levels and if we smoke, etc. For example, a bad diet can interfere with Methylation, which means a cell can grow abnormally, this can lead to disease or at worst Cancer.
Previously it was believed these epigenetic instructions would be left off of your DNA before it was passed to your children, when sperm and egg combined the embryo had a ‘clean slate’. Alas, new research has found around one to two percent of our epigenetic tags cling on; Thus, your worst habits, smoking or over-eating, are the ones you can pass on to your offspring, and even further down the hereditary line.
To put it another way, your Grandfather was making lifestyle choices that effect you today.
Marcus Pembrey, emeritus professor of paediatric genetics at the University College London says that “there are social implications to these results. In the sense you don’t live your life just for yourself, but also for your descendants. Although it is important to realise that Trans-generational effects are for better as well as worse”.
New epidemics, such as Auto-immune disorder or diabetes might be tracked back to epigenetic markers left generations ago. This is hugely important and significant for the medical world.
As an example, a study on rats at the University of Texas, suggests the soaring obesity and Autism rates in humans could be due to ‘the chemical revolution of the Forties’, when our grandparents were exposed to new plastics, fertilisers and detergents.
“It is as if the exposure, three generation previous, has programmed the brain” said professor of psychology and zoology David Crews.
There could also be implications to what we eat; already pregnant women are encouraged to take Folic acid, Vitamin B-12 and other nutrients containing Methyl groups, as they decrease the risk of Asthma, and brain/spinal cord defects in their foetuses.
Evidence is increasing that misplaced epigenetic tags are the cause of certain Cancers, so scientists are developing new drugs to silence the bad genes which were meant to be silenced in the first place. It may also be possible to replace traditional chemotherapy with cancer drugs that ‘Re-programme’ cancer cells by reconfiguring the epigenetic markers.
However, the area which is causing the biggest excitement and, indeed controversy, surrounds growing research that suggests it is not just be physical characteristics or illnesses we might be passing on to future generations, our DNA may be affecting behaviour too.
Behavioural scientists at Columbia University in New York, have identified changes in genes caused by the most basic psychological influence. Epigeneticists also think socioeconomic factors like poverty might ‘mark’ children’s genes to leave them prone to drug addiction and depression in later life.
Evidence exists that Hongerwinter found children, who were affected in the second trimester of their mother’s pregnancy, had a markedly increased incidence of Schizophrenia and Neurological defects.
Even one-off traumatic experiences could affect later generations too. The attacks of 9/11 offered a key insight. An estimated 530,000 New York City residents suffered symptoms of post-traumatic disorder (PTSD) after witnessing the attacks, of which approximately 1,700 were pregnant women.
Rachel Yehuda, professor of psychiatry and neuro-science at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, found mothers who were in their second of third trimester on the day of the attacks were far more likely to give birth to stressed-out infants – children who reacted with unusual levels of fear and stress when faced with loud noises, unfamiliar people or new foods. Professor Yehuda has obtained similar results in the adult offspring of Holocaust survivors and is currently trying to identify epigenetic markers associated with PTSD in combat veterans.
In the space of two decades, the field of epigenetics has exploded. With it has emerged new strands of data analysis, sociology, pharmaceutical research and medical discovery.
“The enthusiasm in this field is obviously great, but people’s expectations of what this means need to chill out a little bit” Say’s Adrian Bird.
Adrienne: Paul, what got you interested in this?
Paul: I am fascinated by what makes people ‘tick’ in general.
I am a writer and build my stories around the things which affect us emotionally, like love, fear, trauma, uncertainty, sadness, joy, distress and so on.
I tend often approach my work from oblique, or alternative angles, many of my stories are not what the reader may first conceive them to be.
Also, character and personality are both important, to know, feel, see in the mind how various people react to certain circumstances.
They help me build ‘real’ people, relative to my storylines and the interaction with other characters within my books.
I research. One protagonist, (in a WiP), who is actually the antagonist, is a psychopathic serial killer. I wanted to share his thoughts and inner mindset with the reader, so researched that subject.
This type of investigation leads me down a myriad of pathways.
I know, in theory at least much about coffee farming in Africa and am learning more. I now have two coffee plants, which are three years old, growing in my conservatory.
Cognitive reasoning, I think that was the subject I was researching, when I came across epigenetics for the first time. I became fascinated, that post was part what I discovered.
I think, at the time, I wrote it as much for my own benefit of comprehension as I did an informative article.