Home' Nova National : NOVA NATIONAL SEPTEMBER 12 Contents Beating our Genes
The new science of epigenetics is discounting the long accepted fatalistic belief that 'it's
all in the genes'. It means, says Peter Dingle PhD, we can ward off and even reverse many
diseases. He presents the first part of his research.
18 © NOVA SEPTEMBER 2012
In 1953, James D. Watson and Francis
Crick proposed the concept of the
double helix as the structure of
DNA. With this finding, the fields
of genetics and biology experienced a
monumental shift: seemingly, scientists
had finally discovered why we are who
we are. The quest began to isolate DNA
and map the entire human genome.
However, after spending billions and
maybe even a trillion dollars unravelling
the human genome, researchers have
come to the realisation that it is not all in
the genes. In recent years, a new idea has
come to the forefront of genetics and is
the focus of thousands of studies --
Genetic determinism -- that is, the
notion that "it's all in the genes", that
everything is determined by our DNA
and that we are victims of our heritage --
has been programmed into us since our
first high school science lessons. This
concept is disseminated by the media
and even further propagated in medical
school. If one gets a disease, it is deemed
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However, only a very few diseases,
such as Huntington's chorea, beta
thalassemia and cystic fibrosis, can be
blamed entirely on one faulty gene. These
single gene diseases affect less than two
percent of the population 1. It is estimated
that only 5% of diseases are a direct
result of gene mutations; the rest are a
result of environmental (about which I
have written extensively and coined a
term, 'the DEAL -- Diet, Environment,
Attitude and Lifestyle') influences 2. It is
now theorised that Alzheimer's disease,
cancers, cardiovascular disease, asthma,
autoimmune diseases such as lupus and
conditions such as schizophrenia are
linked to epigenetic triggers 3. The vast
majority of diseases that afflict us today
are a result of complex interactions
between genes and the environment.
Classic genetics alone cannot explain
the diversity of disease characteristics in
It is true that genes may have an
association with a disease, but this does
not prove causation. The genes may be
related to a disease but are not directing
or causing it. Long ago, biologist Jean-
Baptiste Lamarck was ridiculed for his
evolutionary ideas when he proposed
that the environment, including our diet,
can influence our genes. Now science
has caught up with Lamarck's hypothesis.
Even Darwin recognised environmental
factors outside the hereditary material, but
that has largely been ignored until now.
Perhaps we need to look at our genes
differently. In his book, The Greatest
Show on Earth, Richard Dawkins(2009)
suggests that our DNA is not a blueprint
like that used to build a house, but is, in
fact, a broad recipe from which certain
outcomes arise. Tissues and bodily
structures are not formed according to
set plans or blueprints contained in our
DNA, but self assemble responding to
environmental[local] conditions and the
laws of chemistry.
Epigenetics provides the missing
link between the environment and the
development of disease. It goes beyond
many of the subtle changes in DNA that
explain only a fraction of the diseases
humans develop. For the first time since
DNA was discovered, epigenetics has
encouraged scientists to move from
genetic determinism to studying how the
environment can shape our lives.
Previously, it was believed that DNA
would determine the makeup of the
person, such things as his or her
predisposition to disease, hair colour
and metabolic rate. However, not only
is 'nurture' becoming more significant
than 'nature', but there is also a trans-
generational property to epigenetics:
genes can be turned on and off, and those
changes can be passed on for generations 4.
It appears that genes are not our
destiny. It is environmental signals that
activate the expression of the gene.
Environmental factors are capable of
causing epigenetic changes in DNA that
can potentially alter gene expression
and result in genetic diseases, including
cancer and behavioural disorders.
Environmental influences including nut-
rition, behaviour, stress, chemicals,
radiation and emotions can change how
the genes are expressed and can silence
or activate a gene without altering the
genetic code in any way. These are
changes in gene expression that occur
without a change in DNA sequence.
Known or suspected culprits behind
negative epigenetic changes include
agents such as heavy metals, pesticides,
plastic compounds including BPA, diesel
exhaust, tobacco smoke, polycyclic
aromatic hydrocarbons, hormones, radio-
'The vast majority of diseases
that afflict us today are a
result of complex interactions
between genes and the
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