Epigenetics: The Key to Overcoming Genetic Predisposition

epigenetic twins

No one can tell us apart in these disguises! http://www.ifc.com/

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

epigenetic expression

Genetic expression is dynamic, not set in stone.

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.

epigenetic grandkid dna

Smoking: so bad it will affect your grandkid’s DNA whether they are born or not. learn.genetics.utah.edu

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.

epigenetic code

You were 1 epigenetic switch away from eating at McDonalds! orbitalteapot.blogspot.com

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!”










Failure of Central Planning and the Venezuelan Toilet Paper Shortage

Venezuelan officials continue to undermine individual freedom by further demonstrating the deleterious effects of economic central planning. The nation is experiencing shortages of dozens of staple items including rice, milk, butter and toilet paper. These shortages have been exacerbated by a new pilot program designed to limit the amount of goods each person can purchase. However, innovation and decentralization have provided a way for savvy shoppers to once again beat the government’s vain attempts to control the market.

In an attempt to curb the crisis, the western state of Zulia is embarking on a digital endeavor that will track the goods individuals purchase and will block them from buying staple products from different stores on the same day. Blagdimir Labrador, a state official, explains:

Considering the average size of a family, one person should only buy 20 staple products during the period that we establish, which we think will be one week.

The initiative’s pilot will be run in 65 supermarkets in Maracaibo, the capital of Zulia.

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The shortages were in part caused by price controls set into law during the Hugo Chavez administration, which keep goods like rice and flour below their market price. Steve Hanke, an economist at Johns Hopkins University, describes the flawed policy:

State-controlled prices – prices that are set below market-clearing price – always result in shortages. The shortage problem will only get worse, as it did over the years in the Soviet Union.

Although the intention of these policies was to ensure that the poor would have access to these necessities, their actual (and predictable) effect has been to dramatically reduce the supply of staple items.

Recognizing the shortage, many people are stocking up on supplies and some are reselling them at greatly inflated prices to needy Venezuelans. Zulia borders Colombia, where prices are several times the subsidized costs in Venezuela, and there has also been an increase in trade across the border.

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The result of this market mangling is an eminently foreseeable feedback loop: Economic controls and central planning distort the actual prices of staple products. This imbalance between cost and actual value leads to shortages which create incentives for people to hoard goods. This further diminishes supply, and by rationing the remaining goods the government further induces people to stockpile and the shortage is exacerbated.

In short, the Venezuelan government dug itself into an economic hole and is trying to dig its way out.

The national shortage of toilet paper has struck a nerve with many Venezuelans. In order to quell their frustration, the government says that it is going to import an additional 50 million rolls along with 760,000 tons of food.

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Amazingly, Commerce Minister Alejandro Fleming blamed the shortage of staple goods on “excessive demand.” To a dyed-in-the-wool statist, the inherent friction involved in managing a society is always to be blamed on the proletariat, never on the Top Men attempting to organize the nation.

However, people are already ingeniously subverting the statists’ attempts to model society. On May 29 Jose Augusto Montiel launched an app called Abasteceme, which translates to “Supply Me,” which helps people get around government-caused scarcity. The app utilizes crowd-sourcing technology that alerts users to supermarkets that still have desired goods in stock. According to Montiel, toilet paper and flour are the items most sought after by shoppers. When users find a store that has these items on the shelves, they flock to the market and whip out their checkbooks. More than 12,000 people have already downloaded Abasteceme, mostly in Caracas, but its popularity is spreading.

The economic problems in Venezuela are intrinsic to the state-controlled political legacy Chavez helped create. Venezuela ranks 174th out of 177 in the 2013 Heritage Foundation report on economic freedom, nestled neatly between Eritrea and Zimbabwe. Chavez’ authoritarianism echoes elsewhere in Venezuelan society, as Chavez repeatedly attacked and censored the media for criticizing his regime and held human rights in disregard.

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Central planners believe in Top Men who have the knowledge and ability to maximize the productivity of a country and its people. They fail, however, to have the humility to realize that this is an absurd task for any leader or politburo, as it’s inherently impossible for a group of few to effectively run a nation of many. History has borne this out repeatedly and this further elucidates the mindset of Top Men. Every problem or inefficiency can be blamed on the Little People who audaciously have an “excessive demand” for anything, be it toilet paper, a free press or even liberty itself. For them, the problem isn’t that their political and economic ideology is fundamentally flawed, logically destined to devolve into the same illiberal hell that every socialist government has thus descended.

It’s that the proletariat didn’t comply or simply that the “right” Top Men weren’t in charge.

Modern technology has made controlling human activity gloriously challenging. This is a decided advantage of living in the 21st century, where people can wirelessly transmit knowledge and innovate myriad wrenches to throw into the machinery of tyranny. However, to statists this development makes their ultimate goals more difficult to achieve. To them it is something to be stymied and snuffed out, perhaps most dramatically seen during the 2011 uprising in Egypt when the Mubarak regime literally turned off the Internet to make it more difficult for the protesters to organize.

This authoritarian impulse can also be seen in America, as news of secret NSA surveillance has been leaked. Also reminiscent of Chavez’ regime, the Associated Press was specifically targeted and the phone records for 20 reporters were seized by the Department of Justice.

The statist playbook is outdated; their only remaining tool is the administration of further force onto an increasingly unwilling populace. This gambit continues to work in many regimes around the world, but its expiration date is nearing. People have begun to realize that the decentralization of power and the abandonment of Top Men leads to freedom and peace.

By innovating to strip Top Men of their iron authority, the Little People—too numerous and evasive to be stomped out—can hopefully reject unwanted and unwarranted authority in illiberal governments around the world.

Sic semper tyrannis.


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Robotic Legs Controlled by Your Brain

University of Maryland Brain Cap Technology Tu...

Engineers at Johns Hopkins University have created a set of robotic legs that can be controlled using brain signals.  The legs are controlled through a electronic cap so the technology is non-invasive.

So far, the device is able to recognize when a person wants to walk or stop with 95% accuracy.  All the user has to do is imagine walking or stopping and the legs behave accordingly.  Using EEG signals, paralyzed people throughout the entire world will one day be able to go about their day again with just the effort of a thought.

Research has also made advancements using EEG signals to control a computer cursor and/or drive a wheelchair.

The legs still need to have speed and direction factored into their movement, but this is a few steps in the right direction.