Epigenetics: more than “there’s a gene for that”

As we increasingly look to our personal electronic devices for help with our daily tasks, we’ve been assured they can help us address nearly any issue we may encounter. Companies like Apple that there is no problem they cannot address with their’s trademark mantra, “There’s an app for that.”  With the decoding of the human genome, which was expected to shed light on health issues ranging from weight to depression or addiction to the continuing rise of autism and other disorders, the medical community has taken a similar approach, being driven by the belief, “There’s a gene for that.”

Figure 1: The flow of information from DNA to protein is largely influenced by regulatory factors acting on the processes of transcription and translation. Environmental factors also influence protein expression.

Figure 1: The flow of information from DNA to protein is largely influenced by regulatory factors acting on the processes of transcription and translation. Environmental factors also influence protein expression.

While in many cases there may be “a gene for that”, this may not be the end of the story. Until recently, it was believed that our genes were the primary determining factors in how we look, think, and behave. Within the past decade however, this paradigm has shifted. It is increasingly apparent that the expression and function of our genes are largely influenced by a network of regulatory and environmental factors. Exploration into how internal regulation and environmental factors influence the expression of genes has given rise to a new field called epigenetics.

Epigenetic studies provide insight into how a person’s genetic makeup interacts with environmental, dietary, and lifestyle factors. The application of these insights has led to a new paradigm in medicine known as functional genetics. The fundamental tenet of this emerging field is that environmental triggers play a major role in whether a particular gene is expressed in a way that favors sickness or health, ease or disease.

The insight into human heredity has come a long way from Mendel’s discoveries in 1866 to the completion of the reference sequence for the human genome in 2003. Advances in current technology allow for studies that look deeper into our genetic code. These advances help determine how our genes are regulated and how they interact in response to various environmental factors. The enormous amounts of data obtained from these studies give us the potential to create truly personalized approaches to managing our well-being.

Guest author: Curtis Christian is a member of the Clinical Support & Education Department at NeuroScience, Inc. and the resident expert in genetics.

References:
Baranov, V. S. (2009). Genome paths: A way to personalized and predictive medicine. Acta Naturae, 3, 70-80.
Becker, F., van El, C. G., Ibarreta, D., Zika, E., Hogarth, S., Borry, P… Cornel, M. C. (2011). Genetic testing and common disorders in a public health framework: How to assess relevance and possibilities. European Journal of Human Genetics, 19, S6-S44.
Knight, J. C. (2009). Genetics and the general physician: Insights, applications and future challenges.  Q J Med, 102, 757-772. doi:10.1093/qjmed/hcp115
Rose, M. R., Mueller, L. D., & Burke, M. K. (2011). Anecdotal, historical and critical commentaries on genetics: New experiments for an undivided genetics. Genetics Society of America
Young, E., & Alper, H. (2010). Synthetic biology: Tools to design, build, and optimize cellular processes. Journal of Biomedicine and Biotechnology, 2010, 130781. doi:10.1155/2010/130781
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