Research: Epigenetics: Nurture your genes

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Each year as a volunteer judge for Coeur d’Alene High School senior projects, I learn something new. This year, it’s that “nature vs. nurture” doesn’t complete the debate.

As a matter of fact, say epigeneticists, nurture can influence nature — not just the other way around.

Epigenetics studies changes caused by modification of gene expression, as opposed to altering the genetic code itself. In other words, while we get a lifetime’s worth of genes in the womb — determining coloring, predominant mood, food preferences and so much more — whether or to what extent genes actually take effect (gene “expression”) is also influenced by our environments.

Instead of trying to get technical with functional gene products and protein synthesis, let’s start with a quick genetics primer:

Our DNA includes about 3 billion nucleotide bases. Adenine, cytosine, guanine, and thymine (A, C, G, and T) are the building blocks. Their sequence, or order, determines cell instructions. Genes are specific base sequences that tell cells how to make important proteins — complex molecules which trigger our biology to carry out life functions (and set illness risks).

Epigenetics affects how genes are read by cells, so cells know if they should produce relevant proteins. Genes can be active or dormant. What’s in our environment — behavior, sleep, memory, diet and exercise, pollution, where we live and what we experience — can turn these genes off or on.

What’s cool is that because epigenetics focuses on environmental influences, it’s potentially reversible. If we could map the cause and effect, we could have better control.

Watch out for snake oil sales. That’s also why we must be careful. Because of that exciting potential, there is a lot of “pseudoscience” out there surrounding epigenetics. Wild claims of simple cancer cures, fountains of youth and so on should be taken with a mountain of salt. A few promising studies do not a miracle make.

But it is promising. With certain genes, the genetic sequence is a much stronger influence than environment; not a lot we can do. But with others, epigenetic states are more influential. The scientific consensus reported in the news seems to be that epigenetics and genetics combined are better able to explain health problems.

One of those two we can control.

For more information from the National Library of Medicine see:

And now, for the first installment of “today’s weird word,” courtesy of Mrs. Language Person: Spizzerinctum — vim, energy, ambition.


Sholeh Patrick is a columnist for the Hagadone News Network, word nerd, and biochemistry fan. Contact her at

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