“What is epigenetics?” you may ask. “Why should I care?”

The best answer to your question would probably be for you to watch a short PBS video on the subject. Here’s an overview to wet your tastebuds. Be forewarned that this is the overview of a lay-person, so there may be some gaps in my understanding.

People are generally familiar with the idea of genetically inherited traits. You may have a genetic predisposition for bipolar disorder or fibromyalgia. Hair color, eye color, baldness – these are all determined by our genes. I was surprised to find that our DNA is not as static as I had thought.

Basically, environmental factors – what you eat, whether you’ve been exposed to certain chemicals, the nutrients your parents ate even before you were born – can “turn on” or “turn off” DNA sequences.

A tiny chemical tag of carbon and hydrogen, called a methyl group [affixes to a particular gene], shutting it down. Living creatures possess millions of tags like these. Some, like methyl groups, attach to genes directly, inhibiting their function. Other types grab the proteins, called histones, around which genes coil, and tighten or loosen them to control gene expression. Distinct methylation and histone patterns exist in every cell, constituting a sort of second genome, the epigenome.Epigenetics literally translates into just meaning “above the genome.” So if you would think, for example, of the genome as being like a computer, the hardware of a computer, the epigenome would be like the software that tells the computer when to work, how to work, and how much.

For example: There is evidence that BPA, a chemical found in plastics, contributes to cancer and obesity in mice. The mechanism? Epigenetics. Scientists are studying whether BPA has a similar effect on humans.

The really exciting part about this research is that there may be ways to change someone’s epigenetics. There have been preliminary trials of treating cancer with epigenetic therapy, with 50% of patients going into remission. With no chemo, no hair loss, no feeling horrible and drained.

Epigenetic therapy is still being researched, tested, peer reviewed, etc. But think of the possibilities.

Another thing? Bipolar Disorder and Schizophrenia may be linked to epigenetics. My hope? One day epigenetic therapies will be used instead of all the side-effect-filled medications I currently take.

Go, scientists, go!