What is Epigenetics?

Caviarlieri | Published April 22, 2020

Epigenetics is a trending field in life sciences. It may sound new but it has been a consistent study in the past years as it affects many aspects in biology and human medicine in powerful and enormous ways. Simply put, Epigenetics is a study of the changes in our genes’ activities that is caused by factors other than that of the DNA sequence activity. Basically with every cell of the body, it starts with the same DNA sequence and it is DNA that gives instructions on what functional proteins will be produced inside the cell. However, there may be different patterns in different types of cells such as the difference between a brain cell and a liver cell that don’t necessarily have the same function. It is because epigenetics affects how the cells read the genes and whether the cells should produce certain proteins. The difference about epigenetics and DNA is that unlike DNA where the sequence is fixed, epigenetics can be changed with external influences. Some are passed down by heredity.

Who Discovered Epigenetics

Before going further, let’s go back to where it all started. In the mid-twentieth century, scientists Conrad Waddington and Ernst Hadorn began a broad research on putting together developmental biology and genetics. Waddington coined the word epigenetics from the word “epigenesis” which is a Greek word which originally was used to define the influence of genetic processes on development.

scientist Conrad Waddington and Ernst Hadorn who coined the word epigenetics

Image Credit: semanticscholar.org

In the 1990s a renewed interest in fully understanding genetics. This curiosity led the way to a deeper study and clarification of Conrad Waddington’s observations on a molecular basis.

Interesting Facts about Epigenetics

There are many interesting vital facts about epigenetics. First is that it controls genes. There are 2 factors on how epigenetic works on our genes. One is through nature in which epigenetics determines a cell’s work whether it is a blood cell, skin cell, or others. And another one is through environmental factors that can either turn off or turn on some genes.

Second point is that epigenetics is part of our daily life such as our lifestyle – diet, homes, sleeping patterns, fitness and even aging. These areas in life can eventually stimulate and generate chemical modifications on the genes.

The third is that epigenetics gives us our unique qualities. It is the reason why we have different hair or skin colors, why we have different palates, why we have different personalities. It is the combination of genes turned on or off is what dictates our uniqueness.

Another interesting fact is that epigenetics is reversible. The possible arrangements of more than 20,000 genes and different combinations of that are massive. If we are capable of mapping cause and effects of each combinations of genes, and if we are capable of reversing certain states of genes to put apart the good from the bad and eliminating the undesired ones, it will be life changing – cure for cancer, slow down aging and so much more.

How Epigenetics is Vital for Cell Development

The mechanism of epigenetics is vital in cell development and the body’s homeostasis maintenance. Any change or disturbance in the process can cause many health and behavioral problems. Epigenetic change happens naturally. It starts in the womb and is still part of the rest of human life. It is influenced by age, nutrition, environment, behavior, stress, physical activity, habits. Several lifestyle aspects have been found to modify epigenetic patterns specifically diet, exercise, smoking, alcohol consumption, environmental pollution, psychological stress and even night shift work. Increasing evidence shows that environmental and lifestyle factors may influence epigenetic mechanisms, such as DNA methylation (the main way gene activity is adjusted during life, especially during early development), histone modifications and microRNA expression. These are mechanisms that alter how genes are expressed without altering the underlying DNA sequence.

The factors that affect epigenetics are too many to breakdown. But we can talk about the most basic areas which are diet and the environment. Environment has a powerful effect such as pollution and how it increases the risk for neurodegenerative disease. These are called epigenetic toxicants and they are capable of altering the way our DNA works.

vegetables and salad for dieting which has a huge effect on epigenetics

Diet has been found to contribute to changes and have a huge effect on epigenetics in ways that determine our health status. Free radicals and oxidative stress are generally not good for the body and are causes of many illnesses. And these are easily a result of a diet high in polyunsaturated fatty acids. Another example is diet rich antioxidants from vegetables and fruits can have anticancer protection. There is more than just these examples. Everything we ingest has an effect on our genes.

Why is Epigenetics Important

So why is epigenetics important? Epigenetic abnormalities contribute to the existence of diseases in humans, particularly diseases without proven and specific cures such as cancer, neurodegenerative, autoimmune and metabolic diseases among many others. The further study of epigenetics helps discover how our genes are altered by all these factors and how we can come up with solutions. The process of epigenetics consists of how the cells divide, differentiate to particular roles, how cells survive and move and how the changes in these mechanisms could either transform into healthy cells or destructive such as cancer cells.

Not only is it important to know how epigenetics affect us, what we should avoid, what should we take more, but it also provides us with what is called epigenetic therapy. So many diseases are brought about by epigenetic changes so it is but natural that scientists have tried to find treatments to counteract these changes. Scientists have a long way to go to understand more conditions affected by epigenetics and to nurture the ones that they have already discovered and established.

Epigenetics has made important contributions to medicine such as FDA approved medications to reverse epigenetic changes that contribute to cancer and many more waiting to be developed and approved. Epigenetics has also played a new role in the process of diagnosis. Specialists are now able to dig deeper than the common causes of diseases, into one’s DNA. It is a promising branch of health medicine that will only improve in the years to come.