Author of your Dynasty
Updated: Dec 19, 2019
You come equipped with a genetic set of factors that help determine who you are. Paradoxically, you also write the story of your own life. The not-so-simple reason why both these facts are true is called epigenetics.
You rely in no small way on your DNA to shape you: The building blocks of you, housed within every single cell of your body. And while we are 99.9% similar to each other, that 0.01% difference distinguishes you.
Your love of flowers, that burning hatred for mornings and love of nights, your extroversion, and yes, even your tendency to indulge on chocolate chip cookies.
These genes determine who you are, and you come pre-equipped with them. Weirdly enough, however, there's a twist; Genes can be turned on and off.
Here's how it happens.
By attaching a small molecule composed of only one carbon atom, and three hydrogen atoms (called a methyl group) to a gene, this can, in most cases, turn it off by preventing that gene from being "expressed". In other words, that trait won't be seen in the organism whose gene has been suppressed. Like putting the TV on mute, Netflix (your gene) is still there on the screen, but nothing can be heard.
This process, called methylation, has revolutionized our understanding of biology, and it plays into how we begin to answer that nature or nurture question.
Genetically, two individuals may share an identical sequence of G's, C's, T's, and A's, but if one person’s DNA sequence has been methylated and the others has not, the “meaning” has changed.
Like an accidental omission of a comma in a sentence, small changes like methylation can have large effects.
There’s a huge difference between, “Let’s eat Grandpa!” and “Let’s eat, Grandpa!”
In early January of 1998, a terrible ice storm tore through Canada. Temperatures plummeted far below zero, winds were high, and ice coated everything. It was so bad, that power was knocked out in Ontario and Quebec for weeks, stranding hundreds of thousands of residents without power, and consequently without heat.
In June of that year, researchers had an idea. Believing environment to be a critical influencing factor on development, they recruited women who were pregnant during, or up to three months after the ice storm, and gave them two separate questionnaires to complete. The first had participants describe the objective hardships they endured, such as lack of electricity, and the second had them describe their subjective hardships, such as anxiety and stress.
Ten-years later, the same researchers took blood from the children of the women who endured the ice catastrophe, and made a profound discovery. There was a direct correlation between levels of DNA methylation in a child’s DNA and the amount of objective and subjective stress endured by their mother!
Children of mothers who experienced unusually high amounts of stress were more likely to develop metabolic issues, diabetes, or sometimes even autoimmune disorders. Sorry, Mom.
But this isn’t all bad news. Just as stress can influence the development of a child in the womb to be better prepared to live in a stress filled world, stable and prosperous environments can have positive effects.
Let’s say you finally get around to working out after work. You’re about a week in, and you’ve hit a wall. “Do I have to do this?” you say. It would be so much easier to just go home, open up a bag of Doritos, and binge the latest Netflix series.
But let’s go down that path. You eat that bag of Doritos, and you enjoyed that new series, so you start a new trend of post-work watching and munching. A decade later, and you’ve communicated to your body that your environment is soft and full of high calorie food. By the time you have a child, this information is conveyed via epigenetic methylation, and the young one is predisposed for a sedentary lifestyle.
Let’s try that again.
You keep pushing through the week, trying a bit more each day. Just five-pounds more today. Just ten-pounds more today. A month later, and your muscles already look more defined! You have more energy, junk food doesn’t have that same allure, and you have a more positive outlook on life.
A decade of this lifestyle, and your genes have got the message. You’re an active individual with a healthy diet. And this time around, when you have that wonderful addition to the family come along, he’s predisposed to an active lifestyle.
This can work the other way too! Let's suppose you are born with a slower metabolism than most. No matter how hard you try, the pounds keep adding up. But, you keep at it. You push and push and push, and eventually, your genes get the message. Reality is not what they were programmed for, and they change accordingly. Well, rather they change what they're saying. And so can you.
And that's how you become the author of your dynasty.