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Epigenetics means your fate is not sealed in your DNA

This blog post by Pam Baker originally appeared on the Alberta Epigenetics Network website on 30 September, 2018

Studies in epigenetics continue to add nuances to the nature vs nurture debate every day, but one message seems to underline them all: your fate is not sealed in your DNA.

Epigenetics are unique to each individual since environmental factors and lifestyle choices vary for each person, even if only minimally. The resulting set of gene expressions affects a person’s health and predisposition for diseases and disorders. But epigenetics is also inherited by future offspring. Some studies say epigenetics is inherited by several future generations.

“Many studies have shown that traumatic exposures during pregnancy can have negative effects on offspring,” Stephen Gilman, Sc.D., of the Division of Intramural Population Health Research at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development said in a U.S. National Institutes of Health statement to the press.

“Here [in our study], we found evidence that a mother’s childhood traumatic exposure — in this case separation from family members during war — may have long-lasting health consequences for her daughters.”

An unexpected inheritance

Most of us easily embrace the idea that diet, exercise, air pollution, water quality, sleep routines, and other factors affect our health and our life experience. In other words, we have come to expect our environment and life choices to affect the quality of our own lives. It’s a bit more difficult to embrace the notion that youthful indiscretions and bad lifestyle choices will also affect our unborn children. But increasingly studies show that is indeed the case.

“It has been long debated if epigenetic modifications accumulated throughout the entire life can cross the border of generations and be inherited to children or even grand-children,” write researchers from the Max Planck Institute of Immunobiology and Epigenetics in their report published in Science Daily. “Now researchers show robust evidence that not only the inherited DNA itself but also the inherited epigenetic instructions contribute in regulating gene expression in the offspring.”

Once that notion sinks in, it’s quite easy to feel guilt for every bad decision one has ever made, the impact of which is to be borne by one or more future generations. How could you not look back at past choices and not lament future consequences bestowed on someone else?

But to whatever degree we are personally responsible for how genes are expressed in future generations, epigenetics also points to every individual’s power to change those expressions through their own life choices. In other words, they can deliberately make life choices to offset at least some of the epigenetics they inherited. That news will likely be met with a sigh of relief from many.

Even so, the integration of generational impacts on epigenetics is an intriguing human connection. Think of epigenetics not as a single song played on a metaphorical piano, but a symphony across generations of shared DNA, epigenetics, and the human experience. In such a symphony lies the totality of the human condition.

The role other people play in your epigenetics

The role of others in anyone’s epigenetics is unmistakable. From transgenerational epigenetic inheritance to peer pressure, our decisions, lifestyles, and health outcomes are influenced by many people from our parents and ancestors to our friends, family and co-workers.

Employers potentially play a big role too. Work conditions, employee stress levels, environmental hazards and pollutants, even company sick leave and parental leave policies, affect not only the workers currently on the payroll, but – thanks to epigenetics – possibly their offspring and additional generations as well. This, of course, leads to a need to explore the full impact that work has on present and future populations as well as public health in the present day.

It’s a sticky issue to resolve, as are other related issues. Some literature does exist that explores ideas on these subjects. One source is the journal, Environmental Epigenetics, produced by Oxford Academic. One good example is an article from that publication “Transgenerational epigenetics and environmental justice” which, although not specific to workplace exposures, does discuss the broader issue.

Combined, these studies and discussions mean that we are more than the sum of our genes. Our fates are not sealed in our DNA but malleable and at least partly in our control. Once we master epigenetic drugs and therapies, we’ll have even more control over our fates. And that’s good news for us and future generations.

Epigenetics means your fate is not sealed in your DNA

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