Despite epigenetics only recently gaining public awareness, it has been prevalent in society for some time. In the 1988 Hollywood classic Twins, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito star as fraternal twins Julius and Vincent Benedict. They are the result of a secret experiment carried out at a genetics laboratory to produce the perfect child. At the time the movie premiered, the idea of twins who have drastically different appearances was farfetched and absurdist. Fast forward twenty-five years, and you will see what once was considered Hollywood fiction, is now considered a scientific reality. This reality is described through epigenetics.
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Modern science now tells us that even if you start out as a Danny DeVito, you could end up as an Arnold Schwarzenegger, which is either an upgrade or a downgrade depending on your point of view. These new findings are brought to us by the revolutionary field of science known as epigenetics. Epigenetics is defined as the study of changes in gene expression caused by mechanisms other than changes in the underlying DNA structure. In other words, it is possible that environmental factors can alter the way our genes are expressed, making even identical twins look dramatically different.
The Epigenetic Process
The key to understanding the basis of epigenetics is knowing that this field of study has emerged as a logical way to bridge the gap between nature and nurture. Epigenetics allows us to understand just how closely nature and nurture are linked and how this link affects us as individuals. In his book, The Biology of Belief, and Spontaneous Evolution, cellular biologist Dr. Bruce Lipton explains how emotions can regulate genetic expression. He says that,
Each cell membrane has receptors that pick up various environmental signals such as thoughts attitudes and perceptions. Your cells can choose to read or not read specific genes depending on the signals being received from these environmental receptors.
Epigenetic science makes it possible for us to see that just because we are genetically programmed a certain way that does not mean our body will choose to run that genetic program. The environment we expose ourselves to and the lives that we lead determine gene expression and as a result, determine the people we become physically and emotionally. For example, my mom says I have her sparkling personality. I tell her that most people say I inherited her craziness. The epigenetic theory, however, says that prolonged exposure to my mom’s craziness could signal one of my genes to switch on or off, consequently altering that aspect of my personality. In addition, this “crazy trait” is now something I am more likely to pass onto my children. To my future husband: my apologies.
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The Effects of Epigenetic Gene Expression
While all of us are equally susceptible to epigenetic change, twins who are not DeVito and Schwarzenegger can provide a unique perspective on physical change due to their identical DNA structure. In her essay, “Paramutation: From Maize to Mice”, Dr. Vicki Chandler explains the reason behind this saying,
Different cells in an organism express only the genes that are necessary for their own activity.
So if each twin expresses only the genes necessary for their own activity, than the way each twin looks isn’t just based on their DNA sequence, but it is also based on how each one lives their life. This is how epigenetics reveal their effect. If you have one twin born and raised in the Austrian countryside that lives a healthy and active life, that twin will look different than the twin who moves away to dwell in the sewers of Gotham City.
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In addition to twins, another way we can observe epigenetic change is through fossils. While there has been debate in the scientific community over the historical significance of epigenetic change, new evidence suggests that this process has been affecting physical development for longer than we thought. According to Dr. Andrew Feinberg, Professor of Molecular Medicine at Johns Hopkins University,
DNA extracted from the bones of a 26,000 year old bison found in the Canadian arctic shows that the environment influenced the way the animal’s genes worked, even as far back as the ice age.
By making an organism more adaptable to environmental change, epigenetic factors play a crucial role in the process of natural selection. Since only the strong survive in the face of natural selection, we can rest assured that Arnold Schwarzenager and the fruits of his womb continue to thrive thanks to epigenetic changes in their DNA.
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The field of epigenetics has the power to answer a lot of questions. It can tell us why we possess certain physical traits, certain aspects of our personality, and most importantly, how Arnold Schwarzenager was able to convincingly portray a pregnant man.
Epigenetics and Society
Perhaps more important than appearance, personality, and pregnant men, is our susceptibility to factors that impact our health and behavior. Addiction, for example, can be exacerbated by epigenetic changes. According to William Renthal and Eric Nestler in their article “Epigenetic Mechanisms in Drug Addiction” published in the Journal of Trends in Molecular Medicine,
Epigenetic modifications have been observed in the studies of alcohol, nicotine, cocaine, amphetamines, and opiate use. These modifications increase the vulnerability of an individual to engage in repeated substance use. Increased substance use results in even greater epigenetic changes in the brain’s pleasure-reward areas.
Pleasure-reward areas are part of what launch us into the vicious cycle of addiction, and what keep us addicted until we realize we need help. This information is important because epigenetic changes can be inherited. As a result, children could be more inclined to participate in the same risky behavior as their parents. It should be noted, however, that these effects are reversible. Epigenetic changes are a response to a stressful environment, and if that environmental stress is eliminated, then over time the DNA code will return to its original state. This means that even though my mom is a little crazy and getting crazier all of the time, that doesn’t mean I’m going to be crazy, too! On second thought, maybe I am overestimating the power of epigenetics.
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The media isn’t done with epigenetics by the way. Last April, news broke that Universal Pictures is planning a sequel to the movie Twins. The sequel, which will be called Triplets, will revolve around DeVito and Schwarzenegger discovering that they have another long lost brother, who is set to be played by…Eddie Murphy. While this is a bit of a stretch in regards to how drastic of an effect environmental factors have on gene expression, it is clear that the field of epigenetics is set to have a major impact on our bodies and how we understand them.
Now that we have this information about epigenetics, I think I am going to go home and be nicer to my mom. You never know when your DNA will decide there is such a thing as Karma and bring a whole new meaning to the phrase, “like mother, like daughter!”