Ok, so you can’t actually change your DNA; so far science dictates that’s impossible. But what you can change – and what epigenetics is all about – is the expression of your DNA.
DNA is made up of strings of molecules, known as nucleobases, named A, C, G and T which pair up (A+T and C+G) in between strands. This makes up the spiral of DNA found in our cells – an image you’ll no doubt have seen at some point in your life. The sequence formed by these nucleobases is what encodes our genetic information and determines our physical traits and some of our characteristics.
What is so fascinating is that our DNA comes with epigenetic markers that instruct a cell to read a particular expression of our DNA sequence. Think of these epigenteic markers as little post it notes each having on them a set of instructions for your cells to follow when reading your DNA. It might be that one post it note directs the cell to the part of your DNA sequence that needs the most attention whilst another informs the cell of what parts of the sequence can remain switched off.
For a long time scientists believed that every aspect of our DNA was fixed, but recent discoveries have indicted that the expression of our genes can be altered. This means that although our DNA sequence itself is unchangeable, we can manipulate the epigenetic markers so that they instruct our cells to read certain parts of our DNA sequence.
This is a profound discovery. Not only does it highlight the powerful effect we can have on our body at cellular level, it also raises the question of whether we can cherry-pick the most beneficial parts of our DNA for our cells to read.
When thinking of this, there are two factors that to take into consideration: inheritance and environment. Regarding our inheritance, studies have shown that our DNA can still bear the marks of illness and disease experienced in the bodies of our ancestors. One study conducted on survivors of the Dutch famine during World War II found that the epigenetic changes caused by starvation can be felt by at least three generations along the family line. To this extent it seems that our DNA programming, or parts of it at least, are determined by factors out of our control.
However, another influence on how our cells read our DNA is the environment, and the good news is that this is well within our control to change. Changes in our environment such as those of food, alcohol or other exercise can cause epigenetic changes in our bodies and influence which expression of our DNA sequence is ‘turned on’ for our cells to read. So in theory, if we were to make changes to our environment then epigenetic markers in our DNA would also change to match the new signals they were receiving.
So although research in epigenetics still has a lot to uncover, it’s never too early to check whether our behaviours and habits are ones we really want our body to embrace or not. Because it seems we’re in good stead to change anything that isn’t working in our favour right down to our DNA expression.
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