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Environment can rewrite DNA sequence
Genetics is increasingly influencing our understanding of health and the human experience as it becomes an integral part of medicine and society. A relatively new field of genetics can shed light on the “nature” component of the classic nature versus nurture argument. Researchers are finding that genes alone are not so definitive in expression. Presently, epigenetics is embracing both nature and nurture concepts of gene expression to reshape the way society views genes and their influence on human life.
Epigenetics focuses on chemical markers outside of the double helix strands of DNA. These chemical markers have the power to silence or activate genes, controlling protein production and gene expression. Researchers on the UAB campus have found that these chemical markers and their effects are not strictly coded in the human genome. In other words, we are not subject to the arrangement of our genes, but rather we can influence our genes and how they are expressed.
Most research on epigenetics has been in the study of cancer and tumor generation in the body. Chemical markers on DNA can experience mutations or chemical additions. When these epigenetic changes occur, the gene near the chemical marker can still be silenced or triggered. Cancerous cells take advantage of this mechanism to uninhibitedly proliferate. UAB epigeneticist Trygve Tollefsbol (as reported in the UAB Magazine) believes that similar epigenetic changes can be prevented and reversed by diet. The acclaimed “super foods” are impactful because of their ability to alter epigenetic properties. Enzymes and nutrients found in super foods combat the chemical interactions that can lead to cancer.
Moreover, epigeneticists believe that a person’s environment has a major influence on their cancer risk. Exposure to excess sunlight, cigarette smoke, exercise, and viruses are all epigenetic factors that contribute to a person’s risk of cancer.
The findings in cancer research suggest that epigenetics can influence other genes in the body and cause genetic expression that can be detrimental. Defining behavior strictly as a genetic factor has always been a slippery slope. Pinpointing certain genes as causes of dangerous or undesirable behaviors can pose the risk of unethical stereotyping. Additionally, this simplification could reduce autonomy. Spurred by recent tragedies, researchers have looked into the possibility that genetic markers or mutations could indicate a proclivity for violence or mental instability. Based on an assumption that genes are conclusive in their singularity, some studies have ignored external influential factors as causes of mental instability or violent behaviors.
Research that defines certain genes as major or absolute causes of violence could have dangerous consequences. For example, people with supposed markers for such behaviors could be discriminated against and this knowledge could encourage further violent outbursts. Subjecting a person solely to the influence of their genes would be unethical in this case. However, epigenetics sheds light on the study of behavior as a product of genes and external factors. Since scientists believe that we have influence over our individual genetic expression, epigenetics empowers us in understanding health and behavior on a biochemical level.