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    in focus

alexandra weyrich: epigenetics – self-care for a brighter future

What if we had the power to alter the expression of our future kids’ genes… and their kids’ genes? Welcome to epigenetics: The study of heritable changes in gene expression (phenotypes) brought about by environmental factors. Or, as Alexandra Weyrich defined epigenetics in her illuminating me Convention talk; a mechanism to bridge the environment to our DNA.

Alexandra Weyrich is a scientist and epigeneticist at Berlin’s Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research, where she researches how epigenetic mechanisms affect the adaptability of free range and wild species; particularly how wild mammals respond to environmental changes and what that means for their offspring.

Photo: Stocksy/Aaron Thomas

a malleable genome

Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution and Gregor Mendel’s principles of inheritance were published in 1859 and 1866, respectively. Since then, we’ve learned that genes can be passed down from generation to generation, affecting genotypes that inform, for example, hair color and shoe size. We’ve also understood that phenotypes, as the physical expressions of these genotypes, change over generations in a process known as natural selection. Only certain phenotypes – like speed if you happen to be a gazelle running away from a lion or pretty eyes if you happen to be a human trying to attract a mate – persist through generations as only the fittest survive. But until quite recently, we considered our DNA to be finite and inalterable: Transgenerationally affected by our environments over thousands of years in response to, say, an asteroid or an Ice Age, but pretty much out of our hands.

Epigenetics suggests, however, that our children’s genes -- even our own genes -- can be altered. As Alexandra illustrates, “Like a piano keyboard, the genome in each cell of a living being is identical… Epigenetics determines the song that is played.” 99.9% of your genes, for instance, are completely indistinguishable from the genes of every other human being on this planet. 97.5% of your genes match the genes of a mouse. Because no two humans (or human-mouse duos) are exactly the same, we know that mechanisms at the molecular level mediate DNA-environment interactions. One such mechanism is methylation, where a methyl group binds to your DNA and makes that DNA less active. Processes that affect methylation include the environmental factors Alexandra studies: Temperature, nutrition, stress, fitness, and maternal care.

Photo: Stocksy/Kayla Snell

Let’s take temperature. Alexandra and her research team observed how a group of wild male guinea pigs coped with a 10 degree celsius temperature change (30°C up from 20°C, 86°F up from 68°F), and whether they were able to pass their experience to their offspring. The immediate response, i.e. the genetic response of the guinea pigs exposed to heat, was staggering: DNA methylation patterns in the epigenomes of these furry little subjects were significantly changed. And the epigenomes of their sons, who were not directly exposed to a temperature increase, were also changed. Furthermore, these ‘sons’ experienced a change in reproductive areas, suggesting that the sons’ sons, too, would be affected. Given that global temperatures are on the rise, the results of this study could even suggest genetic changes for some species down the road.

a case for care

The other factors that Alexandra studied demonstrated similar results: Rats who weren’t properly groomed and cared for by their moms exhibited anxiety that showed up in future rat generations. Human endurance training (this time comparing one active leg to one sedentary leg… both legs belonging to the same person) reprogrammed the epigenome of human skeletal muscles. Meditation positively impacted human epigenomes, as did proper nutrition. Stress negatively impacted human epigenomes, as did lack of nourishment.

Photo: Stocksy/Leigh Love

Certainly, one of the most interesting aspects of epigenetics, especially for the future-focused me Convention community, is that it gives us the power and responsibility to positively change the genes of future generations. Similarly, the concept of epigenetics encourages us to heal our own trauma and habits -- childhood neglect, unhealthy diet, a stressful lifestyle -- so we don’t pass our suffering onto our progeny.

A great deal of epigenetic research is still in order, but no matter the findings, one thing is clear: It’s our obligation to take care of ourselves. If not for us, then for the future.

Check out Alexandra’s talk Epigenetics – Treat Yourself Well!, and subscribe to our newsletter to stay in the loop about upcoming events.

Disclaimer: The views of me Convention speakers do not necessarily reflect the opinions of either Mercedes-Benz and/or SXSW.