Genetics for Preppers: What about Epigenetics?


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.


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by JP Martin

  • Deane

    I have great qualms about using over-the-counter DNA tests. I fear they can make some people sick with worry bringing hypochondria to a whole new level. As you point out lifestyle changes gene expression. I can’t wait to read what you write about next, especially the “counter-intuitive tweaks”!

    • JP Martin

      Thanks for the comment Deane! It’s a matter of personal choice in my opinion. Personal health can be like navigating a minefield. If you know there are mines out there it’s scary because you know they can blow up at any time, but you also know how to avoid them. Sergey Brin (co-founder of google) for example has two copies of the APOE4 gene which give him a very high likelihood to develop Alzheimer’s disease. Knowing this at the age he is at will allow him to make the lifestyle changes (and maybe even affect his epigenetic expression) to allow him to move it. I have some good material in the pipeline about this coming soon.