Switching your genes ON and OFF



Recently I attended the DAAD (Deutscher Akadamischer Austausch Dienst-German Academic Exchange Service) Scholarship holders meeting at Karlsruhe, Germany (April 16th to 18th, 2010). It was a great opportunity to meet over 500 scholars from more than 90 Nations representing different geographies and cultures of the world. Although I had attended two earlier DAAD meetings but they were of much smaller scale compared to this one so I wasn’t sure what to expect from this meeting. I ended up having an excellent time and it completely exceeded my expectations. The first day was the arrival, check-in and the formal inauguration of the event. The second day (the day which prompted me to write this article) was dedicated to the presentations, where few selected participants were able to present on their research projects and studies. I was always keen to hold a public talk about my research field and when DAAD invited presentations I took no time to show up my interest in holding what was to be my first public talk. I held a talk on an emerging area of Modern Biology called “Epigenetics” and the immense power it has in shaping our life.
The view that life is one big gene-game and that our genes are determining "who we are" and "what we do", is fundamentally flawed. Around 150 years ago (in 1859), Darwin released his work On the Origin of Species, considered by many as one of the most influential documents of our scientific age. Darwin's contribution to the already existing theory of evolution included the idea that "hereditary factors" passed from parent to child control the characteristics of an individual's life. From the second this doctrine was accepted, scientists worked relentlessly to dissect life down to its fundamentals, finally discovering the DNA double helix, the part of the cell that contains the genetic blueprints of life. The praises for DNA and its determining role in life were sung. Terms like "genes" and "DNA" eventually became common gossip, and the average person came to understand that science had discovered the evolutionary slave-drivers that drastically shaped our lives and behaviour.

There were, however, a few problems with the claim that genes controlled life. The key flaw that has emerged over the years is although genes contain all the information to build an organism but genes cannot turn themselves on and off on their own. An environmental factor has to trigger gene activity. This fact had been acknowledged by mainstream science, but for quite some time these environmental influences were pushed aside or downplayed while biologists continued to gaze at the seductive curves of the double helix. This gasping hole in the chain of genetic events has been recognised and is explained by what is now known as Epigenetics: the study of the environment in regulating gene activity.
Epigenetics simply means “above” genetics and in part involves the study of how outside influences affect mechanisms inside the cell. “The difference between genetics and epigenetics can probably be compared to the difference between writing (genetics) and reading (epigentics) a book. Once a book is written, the text (the genes or DNA: stored information) will be the same in all the copies (the cells) distributed to the interested audience. However, each individual reader of a given book may interpret the story slightly differently, with varying emotions and projections as they continue to unfold the chapters. In a very similar manner, epigenetics would allow different interpretations of a fixed template (the book or genetic code) and result in different read-outs, dependent upon the variable conditions (the environmental cues) under which this template is interrogated.
The best example of epigenetics is our own body. A human body is comprised of hundreds of different kinds of cells having exactly the same DNA. It’s amazing to imagine, although each one derives from the same starting point (the Zygote), the features of a neuron are very different from those of a liver cell, a muscle cells or any other cell type in our body. So what makes these cells differ so much from each other? The answer is that cells are subjected to epigenetic factors that switch on or off their genes depending upon the cell type. Take the example of RBC’s-the genes for haemoglobin are turned on here (because they are needed in these cells), but are switched off in all the other cell types (where they are not required). Any change in this balance would result in a disease.
Another fascinating example of epigenetic phenomena is the case of monozygotic twins. For reasons yet unknown, a fertilized egg cell can clone itself and give rise to separate embryos. Each will begin and end life with the same genetic make-up (i-e exactly the same DNA), but as they grow and develop they will experience differences in their environment, some of which might alter their appearance and behaviour. Imagine “X” and “Y” are monozygotic twins and have exactly the same DNA. If one committed a crime and unwittingly left samples for forensic analysis, it would be impossible to determine the baddie from DNA fingerprint analysis. However, closer inspection of their molecules may reveal significant differences. Although the two would share the same genes, but some genes might be active (switched on) in one twin and not the other. They might be identical genetically but not epigenetically.
We all know that the information stored in our genes helps to determine traits like eye and hair color, height and so on but while it used to be believed that this hereditary information determined our general health, wellness and longevity, it is now thought that in fact genetics only plays a small role in these things, maybe 30% or less! Here’s why...the blueprints that instruct your cells to do things that in turn cause you to gain weight, be healthy or sick, develop cancer or some “genetic” disease, make your hairline recede and countless other actions are contained within your DNA always but unless these instructions are exposed and given to the cell, the instructions are never acted upon! It is the environmental signals that makes this information available/or unavailable (turn your genes on or off) to the cell.
So what could be these environmental signals that can turn your genes on or off? They could be hormones, enzymes, the food you eat, the way you live so on and so forth or they could be energetic like emotions and thoughts.  Let’s try to understand how thoughts can turn your genes on and off. For years we have been taught that positive thoughts are good for health and well being while negative thoughts are detrimental to these things. Now we actually have a process connecting the two. On a macro level your perception of and interaction with your environment affects the micro level of your cells perception of and interaction with their environment which causes a continual second by second reprogramming of your genetics (remember turning on or off-depending upon the signal) resulting beneficial or detrimental gene expression. What this means is that the thoughts we think and the emotions we experience really do have the ability to change us physically. The 50-70 billion cells that create your body are literally “listening to” every thought you think, and are responding accordingly. This is why two identical twins (having exactly the same DNA) at birth can end up not only looking completely different in old age but have widely varying degrees of health and wellness throughout their lifetime.
We’re all well aware that a difficult childhood can have a great impact on the course of someone’s life. Childhood abuse can even drive individuals to commit suicide. Thanks to some pioneering research in rats and in humans, we now have evidence that parenting has a measurable physical impact on behavioural responses to stress. The way parents treat their children determines the extent to which certain proteins get made from DNA that are associated with mood disorders.
To highlight long lasting impact of food, let’s step back to World War II and the so-called 'Dutch mothers'. A group of pregnant women living in the Netherlands, labouring under starvation conditions imposed by a harsh winter and food embargo, gave birth to relatively small babies. However, when their children grew up, in relative prosperity, to have children of their own, their babies were unexpectedly small. So the effects of poor nutrition on Dutch mothers carried through not only to their children but to their grandchildren as well. We now know that the effect seen in the Dutch families arose from changes to epigenetic markers on their DNA, caused by the deficiency of crucial molecules in the diets of the grandmothers. The important point to note here is that the improper food can not only affect your newborn but can actually affect many more following generation to come.
Unlike genetic changes, an important feature of epigenetic changes is that in most cases they are reversible. And the good news is many of the diseases that we have around today are of epigenetic in nature. What that means is we can reverse many such diseases by various means such as food, thoughts, and exercise etc. In other words, we can sometimes bypass years of therapy, as well as harmful drugs and invasive surgeries, to, in effect, do continuous genetic engineering on our own bodies. The following case study provides a beautiful example of how your lifestyle can have a great impact on your health. The study conducted by Dr. Dean Ornish (at California) followed 30 men who had opted out of conventional treatment for low-risk prostate cancer. The men decided, before they were recruited to take part in the study, not to undergo treatments such as surgery, radiation, or hormone therapy normally advocated for the disease. Instead, for 3 months, they made changes in their lifestyle: They ate a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes and soy products. They exercised moderately, walking for half an hour a day. Each day they spent an hour practicing stress management methods such as meditation (Prayer is a wonderful form of meditation). Additionally, the men participated in support group sessions. As the study progressed, the men lost weight, lowered their blood pressure and cholesterol, and saw improvement in their general health. More thorough analyses showed that 48 disease preventing genes were turned on. 453 genes which promote disease, like breast and prostate cancers, were turned off. The implications of this study go beyond men and prostate cancer and are applicable to the whole range of diseases. The people are not doomed by their genetics. They can make positive changes fairly quickly. In 3 months, genetic changes can be made through the choices we make in food, exercise, and the way we handle stress.
Finally I would like to emphasize again that belief plays a great role in shaping our life. A false belief can prove detrimental whereas a positive belief has a healing effect.  This reminds me of a very common Kashmiri saying: “Peer ni bod, yakeen bod” which now makes more sense in the light of epigentics.
{Short message on Environmental week: I hope this article on Epigenetics also serves to send another reminder and make us realize the importance of having a good environment for our survival (remind yourselves of the dying Dal Lake and the distinction of Srinagar featuring as the 4th dirtiest city in the country). A good and clean environment will send good signals and a bad one will send bad signals}.
{I acknowledge Dawson Church’s “The Genie in Your Genes: Epigenetic Medicine and the New Biology of Intention”, Bruce Lipton’s, “The Biology of Belief” “and many other pioneering scientific studies that I have used or quoted directly or indirectly}.

 (Sajad Hamid is DAAD (PhD) scholar, Germany. Feedback at 81sajad@gmail.com)

Lastupdate on : Mon, 7 Jun 2010 21:30:00 Makkah time
Lastupdate on : Mon, 7 Jun 2010 18:30:00 GMT
Lastupdate on : Tue, 8 Jun 2010 00:00:00 IST

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