Family Histories: You are EPIGENEIC, and you never knew.

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.

Fiction: Strong Medicine

Miss Peckham’s mistake was sympathizing with a drunk.

Someone pinched William’s arm. He shielded his eyes from the light of day as Miss Peckham stared down at him.

“Mr. Weldon, I sent you to get my things YESTERDAY. I expected you back YESTERDAY.”

William looked up with scorn. “Why should I care what you expect? You’re not my master.”

“I smell your master on your breath,” Miss Peckham said. “Now where are my things?”

William inched up, scratching his sweaty chest through his damp checked shirt. “In the corner—over there.”

Miss Peckham folded her arms. “Don’t fool with me, Mr. Weldon.”

William saw that the corner was empty. “Damn, I think I left it at The Buckskin.”

“You really are a moron like they say.”

William couldn’t deny it. He grabbed his boots, slipped them on and led her into The Buckskin. “We’re looking for a carpetbag I may have left here.”

The bartender handed it over to him. William considered ordering a drink, but thought better of it.

Miss Peckham took the bag and once outside inspected it. “Everything is wet!” She pulled out the journal of her travels and shoved it under William’s nose. “My work is destroyed! How could you, Bill?” she cried.

“I-I didn’t spill anything!”

“Of course not! Oh, I’m cursed! No matter how many times it happens, I’m still taken in by drunkards and bummers! You’re both. Lieutenant Fahy said as much. But you seemed so harmless!” She burst into tears.

Miss Peckham slumped onto the bench usually occupied by two Mexican alcoholics. “I was orphaned because of the drink. My father and mother both and no matter how I try I still land sitting outside a tavern with my life in tatters. All of my work ruined!” she cried again.

William sat beside her, half expecting to be hit. “I know how you feel, Miss Peckham. Honestly, I do.”

“I don’t want your sympathy. I don’t need it, and I’d rather you left me alone, now that you’ve ruined my life,” she replied and pulled a hankie from her sleeve.

William was tempted to point out that anyone with half a brain would never leave things in the hands of whores and drunks, but didn’t. “No, Miss Peckham—I mean, my father is worse than a drunk—he’s an opium eater and if he hadn’t quit the army he would have been drummed out. I hate him, but then . . . look at me.”

Miss Peckham wiped her tears and glanced at him. She laughed. “By golly, if we aren’t the most pathetic pair.”

William took a deep breath. “I used to think God wanted me for something.”

“God doesn’t exist. Science has won the day, I’m afraid. We’re just tiny parts of a long march to perfection.” She laughed again. “You said yourself that weak ones like us will die out for the good of the species.”

“The species? You are unusual, Miss Peckham, but I’m not able to completely give up on at least the idea of God.”

“Well, maybe with an education you would be,” Miss Peckham said, fanning a wet journal page. “Look, what has God done for you?”

“God expects decent behavior,” William said. “I’m just a rotten drunk. I’ll never forgive my parents. I’m not good enough for . . .”

Miss Peckham closed her wet book. “Who says you’re not good enough? You are what you think you are. That’s what my uncle always said. Listen, I’m sorry for you, but I want to be a great writer, not someone who allows self-pity keep her down. I’ll copy as many of my notes as I can into a new journal—so don’t feel bad. Your mistakes won’t finish me.”

“Well, can we remain friends then?” William asked.

“I can’t—no–I won’t be around your type anymore.” Miss Peckham stood and walked off without even a glance back.

William sat for hours, staring out at the awful little settlement with its wilted cottonwoods and dusty, filthy paths. People moved in slow motion. This was home. He had no parents, no friends, not one person to turn to. He had no work, no money and no inspiration as to how he might get some. He starved but could get no nourishment. Not a single person acknowledged him as all day he sat in the blistering sun until it fell with only the smallest relief. As a child William sat upon his father’s knee following the hummingbirds darting to and fro at sunrise in the desert. How William had admired his father then. Adored him even.

A man came and sat beside him. William held his breath in annoyance and considered rising but had no place to go.

The man spoke. “I’ve been watching you all day.”

William glared at him. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It doesn’t mean anything. It’s just a statement of fact,” the man responded.

William waited for further explanation, but none came and so they both sat watching men unload flour sacks at the general store.

“This is an interesting little town,” said the man.

William chuckled. “Yes, it’s all very interesting.”

“You’ve been out here for hours—since the girl left you.”

“Hey, are you some kind of spy?”

“No, I was reading beneath the tree over there and fell asleep. When I woke up you were still sitting here.”

William shrugged.

“What’s your trade, son?” the man asked.

William took a good look at the heavy, bearded man and figured he was harmless. “I have no trade to speak of anymore.”

“Why are you here?”

“I ask myself that very same question. My father sent me for an adventure—to learn something, I guess.”

“Well, that’s nice,” the man said, stretching his legs before him as if he might stay a while.

“Not really. I’ve bungled it all. My parents and friends are ashamed of me—as well they should be.”

“That’s too bad.”

William rolled his eyes. “Yes, it is too bad.”

The man wiped his shiny forehead with a faded bandana. “Listen, I’m not one for hot climates. I’m going to get out of the sun. Would you care to join me? For a meal. I’ve no company as my associates went in search of artifacts, and I hate to eat alone.”

“I don’t know what you’re on about, or what you want from me, but I may as well tell you I’m broke—there’s nothing you can take from me.”

“I’m a little out of my element here in the desert and everyone is a bit intimidating. I just thought you looked trustworthy.”

William cussed under his breath. This man had lost his wits.

The man stood up. “Maybe you could point me in the right direction for a decent place to eat.”

“The only place in town is Matilda’s. It’s over there and it’s Mexican.”

“So have you decided you’ll come?”

William shielded his eyes from the last bit of sun. “I don’t even know you. Why would I eat with you?” he asked, his stomach grumbling.

“There’s not much to know. I’m a missionary. My name is Seth Kenyon, and I was told by Captain Bourke that there was a talented mapmaker and artist living here in town. Maybe you know him—a William Weldon?”

PREVIOUS EPISODE

To his dog, every man is Napoleon; hence the constant popularity of dogs. – Aldous Huxley

Doesn’t Chekhov look relaxed with his little friend?

LINKS:

 

51 Adorable Photos Show That Dogs Have Always Been Children’s Best Friends From Long Time Ago

 

Adorable Pictures of Famous Writers and Their Pets

 

Writers and Their Dachshunds

 

15 Brilliant Paintings Inspired By The Dogs Of Famous Artists

 

Children and their dogs in the 19th century (51)

“One turns to me his appealing eyes- poor boy! I never knew you, Yet I think I could not refuse this moment to die for you, if that would save you.” Walt Whitman

Civil War graves, near City Point, Virginia courtesy fold3.com
Civil War graves, near City Point, Virginia
courtesy fold3.com

GIVING A FACE TO CIVIL WAR STATISTICS

CIVIL WAR GRAVES LEAKING TOXINS

Beat! beat! drums!-blow! bugles! blow!
Make no parley-stop for no expostulation,
Mind not the timid-mind not the weeper or prayer,
Mind not the old man beseeching the young man,
Let not the child’s voice be heard, nor the mother’s entreaties,
Make even the trestles to shake the dead where they lie awaiting the
hearses,
So strong you thump O terrible drums-so loud you bugles blow.

**words by Walt Whitman

QUOTE: “. . .the people shake off their state of dependence just long enough to select their master and then relapse into it again.” Alexis de Tocqueville

“I seek to trace the novel features under which despotism may appear in the world.

The first thing that strikes the observation is an innumerable multitude of men, all equal and alike, incessantly endeavoring to procure the petty and paltry pleasures with which they glut their lives.

Each of them, living apart, is as a stranger to the fate of all the rest; his children and his private friends constitute to him the whole of mankind. As for the rest of his fellow citizens, he is close to them, but he does not see them; he touches them, but he does not feel them; he exists only in himself and for himself alone; and if his kindred still remain to him, he may be said at any rate to have lost his country.

Above this race of men stands an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications and to watch over their fate.

That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild. It would be like the authority of a parent if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks, on the contrary, to keep them in perpetual childhood: it is well content that the people should rejoice, provided they think of nothing but rejoicing.

For their happiness such a government willingly labors, but it chooses to be the sole agent and the only arbiter of that happiness; it provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, regulates the descent of property, and subdivides their inheritances: what remains, but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living?

Landscape by John Francis Murphy
landscape by John Francis Murphy

Thus it every day renders the exercise of the free agency of man less useful and less frequent; it circumscribes the will within a narrower range and gradually robs a man of all the uses of himself. The principle of equality has prepared men for these things;it has predisposed men to endure them and often to look on them as benefits.

After having thus successively taken each member of the community in its powerful grasp and fashioned him at will, the supreme power then extends its arm over the whole community.

It covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting. Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.”

DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA by Alexis de Tocqueville

Landscape by Henry Ward Ranger
Landscape by Henry Ward Ranger

**Featured painting Pastoral by Jerome Thompson