VIDEO: What exactly is epigenetics?

March 3, 2016 - 06:20

Nature or nurture - that's only part of the question.

The literal definition of epigenetics is 'above' or 'on top of' genetics, according to livescience.com. But what does that mean?

Think of it as a light switch, or a dimmer, that's attached to your genes. This switch can actually turn the gene on or off, or even adjust how strongly the gene is expressed.

In theory, this means that you can have an identical pair of clones with the exact same DNA, and they could still turn out looking and acting quite differently from each other.

Together with a team of animators and scientists, PhD candidate Ellen Wikenius from the Medical Faculty at the University of Oslo has made a video explaining how this works.

Stress in your DNA

Wikenius is a medical doctor specializing in pediatric psychiatry and currently working on her PhD on how stress affects young children’s DNA.

She wanted to explain the main principles of epigenetics so that almost anyone could understand it.

“I’m always looking for good ways to explain epigenetics when teaching and cooperating with colleagues.” she says.

Wikenius is referring to a major project she’s working on with several other researchers from different fields. She hopes that the movie will make it easier to work together, when everyone understands the basics of this scientific field.

That’s why she suggested making the animated movie to her superiors at the University. She has been involved with the project from beginning to end.

Hope for the future

“Why do you consider epigenetics to be so important?”

“It gives us hope, because it gives us something else than the deterministic view of ‘these are your genes, this is what you’ll become’.” Wikenius answers.

Wikenius hopes that epigenetics can be useful, especially when helping children and their families in clinical practice.

“The fact that when we’re beginning to understand how certain experiences actually affect DNA, we can begin to understand how we can give treatment to these patients” she continues.

Inherited changes

Scientists are already discovering the many ways epigenetics can affect our lives.

Some scientists have shown that for instance the DNA in an unborn child can be altered due to the environment surrounding and affecting the mother.

It might even be possible to inherit epigenetic changes. Science Nordic recently reported how a father’s obesity might be passed down through his sperm. 

Much to learn

However, there are still many unknowns in the world of epigenetics.

For instance, can we turn one of these switches on if it’s been turned off?

“That’s not an easy question to answer. We know that you can turn genes on and off, but there is still much we don’t yet understand”

“One example I’ve heard other researchers use is that it’s like taking a white t-shirt and dipping it in black ink. You can wash it several times, but you’ll only come close to a light grey colour.”

And there’s still no clear answer to how much experiences and environment actually alter your genes. If you had a pair of identical clones and raised them in separate environments, you still can’t tell how they’d turn out.

“They could turn out completely different or they could have features that are alike.”

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