Saturday, March 21, 2009

Biology Blast: Epigenetics in the News and Can your Hair Really Turn From Grey to Brown?

When I was studying biology in university, we were taught that we had one set of genes that determined everything from hair colour to which thumb naturally folds over the other when our hands clasp. You had one book of instructions. That was it.

Of course, we knew that obviously you could control (to a degree) the way your body kept in shape, or how it aged. You just needed to watch your diet and get enough exercise.

But last week when my friend, who suffers some premature greying, told me his grey hair "was turning brown again," I didn't believe him. Maybe that's changed too.

In lectures, we were taught that there were genes that didn't express themselves, like when someone is a "carrier" of a gene, but doesn't necessarily go on to develop breast cancer, for example. Still, we understood, that when two recessive genes were matched up from both parents, an offspring could express the trait of which neither of their "carrier" parents did. Sometimes this was dangerous, other times, it merely resulted in blue eyes.

Now it seems the whole study of genetics and DNA has had a revolution! I watched a BBC documentary which featured some geneticists who were studying the possibility of something outside of genetics affecting the way genetics themselves were operating. However, it was just a theory at that point. It proposed that we shouldn't only be talking about the set of instructions our bodies operate by, but which of those instructions are operating when, and how.

This is the relatively new (unless I'm the last to catch on) study of 'Epigenetics', best described as a set of "switches" in our genes that are either turned "on" or "off". We already know that specific deletions of genetic material can result in very different syndromes depending on whether the carrier is a man or a woman, now it seems as if a gene does one thing in one man and absolutely nothing in another. So genetics can't be explained by the genome alone. There's now the all epic epigenome.

I realized that scientists have now adopted epigenetics and are finding more applications for its study. Dr. William King was awarded researcher of the Month by the Canadian Cancer Society this March, for finding links between methylation, a DNA function which regulation the division of cells, and the possibility of detecting high risk patients, before they even develop colorectal cancer.
Read Article

Epigenetics has both exciting and chilling results that can be drawn as we learn more about it. With genetics, our thinking was that we could do whatever we wanted to to our bodies, and while that might affect our own health, it wouldn't have any affect on our children's health, or their children's. They would inherit the same chance of suffering from any various disease, it was up to them to protect themselves from the environment. But now, epigenetics has suggested that things like stress may have an affect on the way even our children's genes might be operating.

The preservatives, amount of exercise we get, the computers, cell phones, cigarettes and machinery we're exposing ourselves to day in and day out may not mutate our genetics today, but what if they have a sort of accumulation snowball affect? Perhaps environmental factors could have effects on our epigenetics, so that chemicals we're dispensing, polluting and eating today, affect the way future generations bodies work. Either way, the course of our evolution depends on whether or not we find out what exactly epigenetics is and how it works, and how best we can work, so that we don't destroy human epigenome, so that we can preserve life.



Blogger madamerouge said...

My hair seems to be turning from red to... not grey, but... something in-between. And only on the back of my head.

3:36 p.m.  
Blogger mistipurple said...

i've been greying since my teens.
i'm coloring them now. till i get old enough, i will let them be.
wait a minute. i am old enough. bleh.

10:49 a.m.  

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