The discovery and description of DNA earned scientists James Watson, Francis Crick, and Maurice Wilkins the 1962 Nobel Prize. Their pioneering work in genetics changed the way we saw life and provided a basis for understanding the evolution of all species, including our own. It seemed that life as we knew it had suddenly been laid out before us as a perfect blueprint. Little did we know that there was an entire new field that would emerge from where Watson, Crick, and Wilkins left off.
Now, the study of epigenetics is illuminating more of the intricacies of how our genes affect, and are affected by, our life. “Epi” comes from Greek, meaning “upon,” “over,” or “near,” so epigenetics is the study of mechanisms “on top of” or “near” the classical mechanisms that affect gene expression. In particular epigenetics looks at how genes are activated or suppressed not by changes to the underlying DNA sequence but by dynamic processes connected to our everyday choices and experiences.
Why is this so important? Aside from advancing the ability to diagnose and treat diseases that originate in our genome, epigenetic research shows we have a greater potential to affect who we are, how we are, and even what we are. The phrase “it’s genetic,” no longer means something is determined by forces beyond our control. In fact, epigenetics suggests that what happens in our bodies and what we pass on to our children could be very much a result of how we use our brains and bodies.
First, let’s take a moment to summarize the “classical” mechanism of genetic change — it’s the mutation, deletion, or insertion of DNA into the genome. Mutations occur randomly over time. Deletion and insertion can also accrue over time and may be accelerated by environmental factors, but they typically occur slowly.