“What you do affects your genes. In other words, you’re not predestined to a certain life because of your genetics, as we once thought.” -Trygve Tollefsbol (Ph.D. Molecular Biology)
The booming field of epigenetics has made a sizable entrance in the age-old nature vs. nurturer debate, giving researchers a better understanding of how different social factors influence the way our genetic material is expressed throughout our lives. “Epigenetics offers a surprising middle ground,” says Dr. Tollefsbol (Professor, Epigenetics and Gene Regulation in Cancer and Aging at the University of Alabama), “Genes are profoundly important, epigeneticists say, but so are environmental factors.”
Epigenetics challenges the long-standing idea many geneticists had that environmental factors could not possibly have such a fast impact on a species’ genome, or that these changes could be passed down to their offspring. If anything, this idea was tossed away as heretical, seemingly straying from the Darwinian principle that only natural selection engenders inheritable changes in genetic material. But now, as reported in a TIME Health article on epigenetic research, “Scientists have now amassed historical evidence suggesting that powerful environmental conditions can somehow leave an imprint on the genetic material in eggs and sperm.”
The main caveat here is that the Darwinian model remains completely unscathed; scientists are not dealing with genetic mutations, which alter our genetic code. Changes in gene expression in this context are not carried out because of alterations in our DNA sequence. Rather, epigenetic markers tell the body to turn off, turn on, speed up, or slow down, the expression of certain genes based on environmental and other social factors. If DNA offers the ingredients for the activation of different proteins, the environment we live in and our lifestyle choices tell epigenetic markers how to express the code that’s already there, unchanged.
When it comes to the health and longevity, Tollefsbol says that further studies in epigenetics can help slow down the aging process and allow patients to tailor diets and adopt healthy lifestyle habits that reduce their susceptibility to age-related illnesses such as cancer. The University of Alabama professor holds that epigenetics provides valuable genetic insights to our daily health practices, like the way we eat, exercise, and handle stress. Helping people understand how environmental factors influence the aging process and overall health, and its relation to illnesses such as cancer, the science of epigenetics includes the study of telomeres and its enzyme activator telomerase.
The gene for the enzyme that preserves telomeres, known as telomerase, says Tollefsbol, is inactivated before birth. Finding ways of building telomeres back up has been a core theme in the study of healthy aging, one that has prompted clinical trials that preserve telomeres in mice, and extend their lifespan, by activating the enzyme telomerase. Tollefsbol sees a bright future in human trials, saying that there is hope telomerase is able to extend our lifespan without predisposing human patients to diseases associated with harmful immortal cells. For more information click on the link below to read the University of Alabama report on Dr. Tollefsbol’s work in epigenetics. http://www.uab.edu/uabmagazine/2011/september/epigenetics