DNA Mutations are primarily associated with occurrence of a disease, but its Epigenetics is not well understood. In last few years, Epigenetics studies has established that, for a genetic disease to occur, DNA mutation may not be always present. There are various environmental and genetic factors which play a role in non-DNA mutated genetic disease occurrence

What is Epigenetics?

Epigenetics is a concept that has been revolutionizing studies on human development over the last few years. Epigenetics translated is, “Above Genes”. The study of epigenetics looks at what happens to your genes over the course of your life and how it is passed on to off-spring. This theory incorporates the concept of nature vs. nurture.

Gene expression occurs at a molecular level to which the following are crucial:-

  • DNA: genetic code.
  • GENES: Part of the DNA which is involved in making and expressing traits

Genes are the parts on the DNA that determine what traits are specifically passed on from parents to children. Therefore, some individuals have blue eyes while others have blonde hair or different skin color. We each have our own specific codes which is why we stand out as unique individuals.

What are Epigenetic factors?

A good way to describe epigenetics is to look at DNA like a paragraph, all the sentences and words are in order. Epigenetics works like punctuation that is placed on different areas of the same paragraph. This way the structure of DNA is retained but epigenetics modifies by turning off and turning on what genes should be expressed based on the environment and experiences.

Epigenetic Factors play role by mainly altering the gene expression of gene without any structural change in underlying gene

Figure 1: Adapted from Wikipedia

Many studies have been conducted to study the various factors, but primarily, DNA methylation, non-coding RNA (ncRNA)-associated gene silencing and histone modification are known to cause and sustain epigenetic changes

What causes Epigenetic changes?

In the past traits were only associated to only inbuilt codes that pre-determined an individual, now there is proof that it is more than just the pre-conditioning and our environment significantly contributes to it. Many environmental factors including pollution and diet have been associated with epigenetic changes.

A very popular study done in Sweden in the 1980’s assessed this very concept. Populations in that area were subject to moments of scarcity in food and then an immediate abundance of food. Studies indicated that those who went from starvation to over-indulging in the abundance had a life span shorter by 6 years compared to the rest of the population. Further research observed that not only did it reduce their lifestyle, but it also reduced the lifespan of their offspring as well.

Similar studies involving rats exposed a single rat to a chemical to which they developed a fear off. The offspring of the rats that were never exposed to the chemical immediately exhibited a fear. This goes to prove that that not only are our physical traits transferred onto our offspring but so do the results of our experience.

This is the theory of epigenetics in which we must become much more conscious of our lifestyles and keep in mind that we do now and the situations we expose ourselves to, will in some way impact the well being of our kids and grandkids.

How is Epigenetics beneficial?

The good news about epigenetics is, once the scientists can tag where on the DNA the genes are located, they can identify the causes of certain diseases such as cancers and try to target the illness by turning on or off the gene involved in expression of that cancer. There is also an implication for the future of targeting mental-illnesses that can be influences by epigenetics. This study is known as Behavioral Epigenetics

What is Behavioral Epigenetics

Behavioral Epigenetics is the study of how epigenetics affects the psychology, psychiatry, neuroscience, biology etc. of human behavior.

From the aspect of psychiatry/psychology certain illness are more affected than others. Twin studies proved that there was a significant inheritability rate in bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder and schizophrenia. As previously explained, even though the offspring of the rat were never exposed to the specific chemical they tended to be afraid as a result of their father being exposed to it. This implies that ability to tolerate stress and response to it is also affected by epigenetics.  Again, the good news it is finding the source of gene tagging related to the mental illnesses may allow scientists to identify how to treat the condition more effectively and or prevent it being passed on to the best of their ability

Related article: Genetic Carrier Screening

What should we learn from Epigenetics?

Studies in epigenetic changes have started to establish that the old thinking of “No DNA Mutation- No disease Risk” may not be valid in future. Credible evidence has come to light various environmental factors which we can control, can give rise to certain diseases. These diseases may pass on to your future generation.

Therefore, it becomes an important role for physicians and health workers, to understand epigenetics. It is important for them to make their patient aware of the potential epigenetic factor that might be playing an important role in development of his condition. Such knowledge can help people in early stages to cure themselves and to help reverse the effect. In this age, we are already conscious of how our diet, exercise, mental health should be prioritized in order to balance our lifestyle and stay healthy.

However, we now have the added responsibility of ensuring that we transfer these favorable traits onto our own offspring. It is re-assuring to know that the way in which you turn out is not only related to traits we cannot control, but also to ones that we can


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