The Emerging Field of Epigenetics

May 31, 2010 by  
Filed under health

How much of our health depends on our family genes? How much can we influence our own lifespan? These are questions that I have discussed with friends and family over the years and are questions that interest me for oomphTV.

I recently came across an article in the LA Times about a rapidly growing field in health called Epigenetics that caught my eye.

We all have an idea of what DNA is and what it does. I just learned there is a kind of secondary code, carried along with the DNA, called the “epigenome.” This code is a set of chemical marks, attached to the genes, that act like the DNA referees. They turn off some genes and let others do their thing.
And although the epigenome is pretty stable, it can change. This means lifestyle choices such as diet, exercise and drug use could have lasting effects on how the body works.

“The thing I love about epigenetics is that you have the potential to alter your destiny,” says Randy Jirtle, who studies epigenetics at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C.

The epigenome is part of what tells different cells in the body which DNA recipes to read and which to ignore. The small chemicals that attach to the DNA may cover up or restrict access to genes that aren’t needed and keep others wide open and readable.
Jirtle compares the system to a computer: The DNA is the hardware – set and unchanging- and the epigenome is the software that tells it when, where and how to work. Some very important stuff here.

Epigenetics might be especially important for pregnant women and infants, because much of the epigenetic code is laid down early in development. Some experts speculate that the time before puberty might also be important, since the genome and epgenome are gearing up to launch new genetic programs.

So why should those of us over 40 care about about epigenetics? Because the epigenome can also be altered in our adulthood. Epigenome may change in response to what you had for breakfast today, or the stress you feel after a tough day.
Genes are not just “on” or “off.” They can be on just a little bit, on a lot and everything in between. So referees, both the short-term and long-term types, turn genes up or down, rather like the dimmer switch for a lamp.

And many genes can be turned up or down by changes in behavior and environment. For example, researchers at the Preventive Medicine Research Institute in Sausalito, Calif., studied 30 men with prostrate cancer. These men declined traditional medical treatment and instead underwent a three-month program that included a healthy diet, moderate exercise and daily stress management.
When the researchers examined gene activity in the men’s prostate biopsy samples, they found that 48 genes were turned up and 453 were turned down, compared with gene activity at the beginning of the study. The authors noted that the study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2008, was small and needs to be repeated to be sure of the effects.

Though the science of epigenetics is young, scientists think there’s good reason to think about how lifestyle choices may affect the epigenome.
So the next time you eat a healthy meal or finish a good round of exercise, think of those little epigenomes. Hopefully you are helping them make good decisions and giving them a little oomph!

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