Researching the consequences of my own genetic makeup has made me ask some serious questions. Am I condemned to the limits of my traits? Do I have an expiration date attached to the various illnesses I’m susceptible to? When is the last time I watched Gattaca?
With 23andMe, results are given with a very important caveat. Given as a chance of out of 100, the fine print reads that all results are given considering all other things equal. And looking at it, there are a lot of things to consider. What we eat, how much we sleep, what part of the world we live in, what sort of stress we subject ourselves to.
I don’t want to chime in on the nature vs. nuture debate which has been going on for decades. But recent research has brought into light the ability for people to permanently change their genes through a process known as epigenetics.
What is epigenetics?
You probably know a pair of identical twins. At first, you probably couldn’t tell the difference between them but as you got to know them, you probably learned a number of traits that you could use to tell them apart. From anything from physical traits, to health, to personality, identical twins can be very different.
If genes told the whole story, these differences wouldn’t exist. But through life, an identical genome can be expressed in different ways as certain genes are turned on or off. This is the process of epigenetics, which literally translates to ‘above the genome’.
How it works
The DNA molecule itself is very delicate, and small chemicals binding to it can change whether any portion is expressed or not. Entire genes can be rendered inactive by a process known as methylation. In this process, a methyl group attaches to either a gene or the histone that contains it to render it active.
This is actually how your body’s cells differentiate themselves. All cells have the same DNA, but the genes that are turned on or off determine whether it is a skin cell or a brain cell.
Your lifestyle, your genome
Where it gets interesting is when methylation comes from outside the body. Different environmental factors such as food, sleep and stress. Studies on twins have suggested that these epigentic factors accumulate as we age. As time goes on, genetically identical twins can have totally different genes expressed.
These changes can be positive or negative. While toxins from food or smoking can create cancer, trials for drugs designed to use epigenetics to ‘turn off’ the genes that make cells cancerous have shown promising results.
All about the genes?
So it turns out I might not be doomed to be a Alzheimer’s ridden, Crohn’s disease addled slow twitch marathoner after all. By looking into the epigenetic factors controlling my health, we can make the most out of the genome we have. Fortunately, some of the recommendations for this are the same things we would be doing for normal health with a few counterintuitive tweaks. Stay tuned for more updates on how you can maximize your genome.