What if the decisions we make today affect not only our health, but the health of our family for several generations? It sounds a bit crazy; Sure, but our lifestyle could affect our grandchildren.
Epigenetics is an emerging science that could eventually have huge implications for how we approach our health and that of future generations. Epigenetics literally means “on top of genes” and that sums up the role of the epigenome in our body.
We all have DNA that, unless you have an identical twin, is completely unique Almost every cell in our body contains all of our DNA and all the genes that make us who we are; this is known as the genome. But, obviously, we are not all made up of just one type of cell. Our brain cells do different things than our hearts, for example, they behave differently from our skin cells. If all of our cells have the same information, how do they do different things?
This is where epigenetics comes into play. It is basically an instruction manual on our DNA that tells us what to turn on, how to act, etc. You can think of it as an orchestra – our DNA is the music and the epigenome is the conductor, telling cells what to do and when. Everyone’s personal orchestra is a bit different. So while the epigenome does not change our DNA, it is responsible for deciding which genes will be expressed in the cells of your body.
This is how it works: each cell with all its DNA awaits external instructions. It comes in the form of a methyl group, a compound made of carbon and hydrogen. These methyl groups bind to genes, letting them know when to express themselves and when to stay inactive, and they bind differently depending on where the DNA is in the body.
Histones also play a role in epigenetics and how genes are expressed. Histones are the protein molecules around which DNA wraps. The force with which DNA is wrapped around histone influences the force with which a gene is expressed. So the methyl groups tell the cell what it is (“you’re a skin cell, and this is what you do”), and the histones decide how much the cell is going to bulk up, so to speak. Every cell in the body has this combination of methyl and histone, which tells it what to do and how much to do. Without the epigenome giving instructions to the cells, the genome would not know what to do.
What makes this interesting is that while our genome is the same from the moment we are born until we die, our epigenome changes throughout our lives, deciding which genes should be turned on or off (expressed or not). ). Sometimes these changes occur during major physical changes in our bodies, such as when we hit puberty or when women are pregnant. But, as science is beginning to discover, factors outside our environment can also cause epigenetic changes.
Elements such as how much physical activity we do, what and how much we eat, our stress levels, if we smoke or drink too much, can make changes in our epigenome by affecting the way that methyl groups adhere to cells. In turn, changing the way methyls are attached to cells can lead to “mistakes” that can lead to disease and other disorders.
It seems that because the epigenome is constantly changing, newborns would start with a new epigenome list, meaning that parents would not pass their epigenomes on to their offspring. And while that’s what should happen, sometimes these epigenetic changes get “stuck” in the genes and passed on to future generations.
While identical twins are largely epigenetically indistinguishable from each other when they are born, as they age, there are large differences in their methyl and histone groups, which affects how their genes are expressed and explains the differences in their health.