Epigenetics is the new hip science. Time Magazine's front cover and article, 'Why your DNA isn't your Destiny' from January 2010 explains why. Its more explicit subtitle provided the hook - 'The new science of epigenetics reveals how the choices you make can change your genes - and those of your kids'. Who wouldn't be interested in this?
Epigenetics is the study of ways in which the genetic code in our DNA is regulated - switching genes on and off, or amplifying or muting their expression - results in changes in metabolic pathways and in bodily functions. The exciting thing is that epigenetic marks that can be detected by new biotechnology are affected by modifiable environmental factors, like nutrition. This potential makes epigenetics an exciting field of research with important implications for disease mechanisms and of huge commercial interest to those in the business of generating new drugs.
Slightly more cautious in its approach than TIME magazine it has taken the International Journal of Epidemiology (IJE) another 2 years to produce an issue devoted to epigenetics. Sadly for those hopeful of imprinting the advantages of their environment on their genes to the benefit of their children and grandchildren, the picture presented in the March issue of the IJE is not so optimistic about the potential for environmentally induced epigenetic changes to persist across generations. While increasingly sophisticated genetic tests make it possible for parents to choose some specific traits of their baby, the epigenetic designer baby may prove to be a non-starter.
Given the huge range of epigenetic variation and the relatively small effect size of environmental influences on the epigenome, investigation at the level of the individual may produce little but random noise. However, the IJE is confident that, studied at the population level, epigenetics has much to offer to the understanding of disease aetiology and epidemiology has mu
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