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What is Epigenetics?

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Epigenetics

Epigenetics (Photo credit: AJC1)

We talk about epigenetics on this site a lot but what is it? It’s a programming language within our cells that control our genes and DNA. It switches genes ON or OFF causing things to happen at the cellular level. Like a computer where the software turns instructions ON that form the various programs ewe run, epigenetics is the software and genes are the hardware.

Epigenetics are a chemical reaction that can enable or activate a gene or block it from being activated. These chemicals are methyl groups which comes from the environment we live in. It can be the food we eat, how we think (positive or negative), what we believe (placebo/nocebo), stress and exercise. Our body uses these chemical reactions to activate and deactivate genes or to send messages from one cell to another to do something.

There are no good/bad associated with these reactions but they can [positively or negatively affect our health and mental outlook. Early man & woman didn’t have the choices we have today. They were nomadic (got exercise), thought positive (were seekers and explorers), had low stress (except when chased by a saber-toothed tiger) and ate nutritious foods. They ate organic (it was all there was). They didn’t eat much meat (they probably got eaten more than they ate other animals). Their bodies evolved around this kind of simple life.

We have changed all this in the last 100 years. We don’t exercise, we are over stressed all the time, we eat junk food, and we all believe we will grow old and sick. And then we are shocked when it actually happens. Take control of your life and be well.

Why are we who we are?

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Primary structure of a protein

Primary structure of a protein (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Why did we evolve as humans? Why do we have DNA and epigenetics? Why do we get sick? We are made of Amino Acids (which are the building blocks of plant & animal proteins). Amino Acids can be thought of as beads and proteins as necklaces. You can make different necklaces by using different beads. These acids have been found on many meteors from space. They are probably prevalent throughout the Universe. Life probably started very simply as Amino Acids forming simple proteins which led to RNA (half a DNA strand). RNA led to viruses and evolved into DNA which led to single cells and then onto all live on Earth. I believe these simple proteins along with Methyl Groups allowed life to adapt and form based on conditions and chemicals here on Earth. It adapted to the environment and built life from it. Life evolved into plant and animal and up to us. We are NOT the end or even the ultimate evolution. It will continue beyond us. It is anyone’s guess as to what that life form will be.

DNA without methyl groups (epigenetics) is like a piano without a player or a computer without software. It is useless! Epigenetics is very much like computer software in that it “plays” the hardware (DNA) in particular ways that do useful things. Computers have a little over 100 unique instructions in their processors. Playing these instructions in different orders is what creates Windows, Movie editing programs, databases, spreadsheets and word processors. They all use the same instructions but in different sequences that causes useful things to happen. Our epigenetics “Plays” our DNA  in different ways to cause useful things to happen in our bodies. It creates different types of cells (heart, muscle, lung, skin, etc.), messages to other cells (e.g. hormones), it adapts to changing environment (diet, exercise, thinking, belief and stress) and performs all the functions needed by each life form.

When the environment changes our epigenetics, it is trying to react to the environmental changes. Sometimes these changes are “Bad” and will hurt the life form (cancer) and sometimes they are “good” and will help it (health and resistance to disease). We can not easily change our hardware (DNA) but we can affect our software (epigenetics).

Diet adjusts which genes are active and inactive

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English: This image shows a DNA molecule that ...

English: This image shows a DNA molecule that is methylated on both strands on the center cytosine. DNA methylation plays an important role for epigenetic gene regulation in development and cancer. The picture shows the crystal structure of a short DNA helix with sequence “accgcCGgcgcc”, which is methylated on both strands at the center cytosine. The structure was taken from the Protein Data Bank (accession number 329D), rendering was performed with VMD and post-processing was done in Photoshop. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The turning of a gene ON or OFF is called epigenetics. Many environmental changes can cause these subtle switches on our DNA. The results of having a gene turned on can for example be cancer or a gene being turned off like our tumor suppressor genes. Genes control us and make us who we are. Our liver cells differ from our heart cells due to epigenetic switches. Mammals differ from one another because of epigenetic switches. Learn.genetics says: “Nutrients from our food are turned into methyl groups along a pathway: the pathway is made up of many players that manipulate molecules into methyl groups and ultimately put them on our DNA”. Diet is so important to our health and well-being but is not considered by most Americans when dealing with health issues.