Since the dawn of civilization, and perhaps longer, human beings have been interested in how to extend their lives; and not just extend them, but enjoy good health all the while. Epigenetics looks at how gene expression influences disease and the aging process and how we can modify that expression.
In the process, we’re taking control of our future.
In this article:
- Understanding DNA
- Gene Expression
- How Genes Express Themselves
- Signal Blocking
- What Is Epigenetics?
- Epigenetic Functions
- Some Examples of Epigenetics at Work
- The Future of Epigenetics
Epigenetics and the Expression of Genes
Our bodies are made up of chromosomes that contain DNA. All the genetic information that controls everything from the way we look to the way we age is encoded in this DNA.
As we’ve come to understand DNA, we’ve gradually realized that not all genes are active. In some cases, they are blocked altogether.
Just because a gene exists within us doesn’t mean it is having an effect. Whether or not a gene is creating the characteristics encoded within it is a process referred to as gene expression.
For some genes, expression happens at some times but not at others. Other times, genes express their characteristics but very weakly.
In other cases, the genes are there but are unable to express themselves at all.
How Genes Express Themselves
Consider the way you send an order to the printer at your office or home.
First, you decide the “code” of the page you wanted to be printed by choosing what words or pictures appear on the page. Then, you send a copy of these instructions to your printer.
The printer produces a copy of what you’re seeing on your screen.
A gene expresses the code within itself by making a copy of itself and then sending that copy to a cell, much like a computer sends a print order to your printer.
The cell then uses that code to produce a physical copy of the protein encoded in the DNA. That protein produces a certain characteristic within your body, either by itself or in combination with other proteins.
Sometimes, you send a signal from your computer to your printer, and nothing happens. Something interfered with the Wi-Fi connection, or something went wrong in the printer; for whatever reason, you don’t get your copy.
The same thing can happen with your genes. When these genes send an order to your cells, those orders don’t produce the required protein because something is blocking them.
What Is Epigenetics?
Epigenetics is the study of gene regulation and expression. In other words, it’s how we can modify or control the way genes express without changing the DNA within them.
It considers what blocks our bodies’ printer cells from printing the codes they’re sent by our DNA and how we can remove those blocks or add new ones where needed.
Epigenetic functions can change the way genes express themselves by deactivating the gene entirely or by stopping the gene from making the copy. These functions can also stop the process by blocking the function of proteins that are products or by breaking up these proteins before they can do their work.
Blocks can be created or removed using hormones, chemical or environmental stimuli, neurotransmitters, growth factors, or transmission factors. Currently, using one of these methods to influence gene expression is considered the best way to change things.
The alternative is to alter the DNA itself, which often has unexpected negative consequences.
Some Examples of Epigenetics at Work
One area where science is anxious to stop the work of gene expression is in the formation of cancerous tumors.
Tumors grow when certain genes send signals to cells to start rapid cell division and growth. This happens all the time, but it doesn’t usually get out of control because we have other genes that block this uncontrolled cell growth.
When cancers grow, it’s because the cell growth genes are expressing themselves while something is blocking the tumor suppressor genes.
This pattern of gene behavior is inheritable, which is why cancer tends to run in families.
One epigenetic goal is to fully understand how this happens and find ways to turn off the first set of genes and/or cause the tumor suppressor genes to switch on. Ultimately, it may even be possible to stop these genetic malfunctions from being passed on to the next generation.
2. Genetic Diseases
Many genetic diseases that are present from birth occur because a gene on the X or Y chromosomes is missing or blocked. By developing drugs that inhibit the expression of unwanted genes, epigenetics can, at least, partially make up for the missing genes and improve outcomes for those with these diseases.
Many of these genetic diseases are caused by mutations in histone modifiers and chromatin-remodeling proteins. By learning how to block these mutations, we could bring an end to some genetic diseases altogether.
Don’t forget to download, save, or share this handy infographic for reference:
The Future of Epigenetics
Scientists have been using epigenetic functions to control outcomes for animals, and particularly livestock, for years. It’s also important in the manipulation of certain staple crops the world depends upon, like wheat, corn, and rice.
But we’re just beginning to understand the possibilities when it comes to applying these functions to the human organism.
Epigenetic drugs are one key area of development, and they offer the possibility that, very soon, we can reverse abnormal gene expressions and bring an end to certain diseases.
Meanwhile, we’re also gaining a better understanding of how certain environmental factors, from the positive ones like vitamins to the negative ones like pollution, can influence our genes and, thus, the whole aging process. Studies in these areas are leading to the development of supplements and interventions that can extend lives and contribute to healthier aging.
Evidence is growing that gene expression holds the key to controlling all the diseases we associate with aging, like heart disease, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s. It even plays its part in obesity and weight loss.
The next step in this exciting science is to understand what factors we can change to limit our vulnerability to these disorders and perhaps, even turn back the aging clock. It’s an exciting time to keep up with all the latest science, check back with Tru Diagnostics regularly.
What are your thoughts on this anti-aging advancement? Let us know in the comments section!