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Can you rewrite the history of your genes?

Written by University of Melbourne Masters of Science Communication students Jasmine McBain-Miller, Kimberley Meyers, Ashley Sroka and Bronwyn Wolfaardt under the guidance and direction of Associate Professor Jeff Craig.

Want to know what’s in store for your health when it comes to chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and mental illness? Look no further than your ancestors.

Research shows that there are steps you can take to reduce your inherited risk and that of your children too. While we may not able to go back in time and change the lifestyles of our parents or grandparents, it is never too late to change our genes to change not only our health, but the health of our children and grandchildren.

But first we need to understand a bit about our DNA.

The language of the generations

DNA is the language of the generations; the legacy our ancestors pass down to us before we pass it on to our kids. It is the set of instructions our bodies use to function but it doesn’t work alone. A number of factors, which make up what’s called the epigenome, work around DNA to change how it is read. Our lifestyle choices and external environments affect the epigenome and can, to some extent, be inherited too.

The story in our genes

We can think of the epigenome as the words that make up a story - DNA is the writing, which is really just a combination of words. But grammar and punctuation - like the epigenome - work around these to affect the way we read and understand the words. For example, “let’s eat grandma” and “let’s eat, grandma” mean very different things.

The silence of the genes

Changes to the epigenome can change the volume control button on our genes in a number of ways, one of which is through DNA methylation. This process involves a methyl group (one carbon atom bonded to three hydrogen atoms) attaching to a portion of DNA, which prevents it from being read by the cell. In doing this, the gene becomes “silenced”, and can no longer work. Methylation can be useful as it prevents certain genes from being turned on in the wrong cells or at the wrong time. However, gene silencing through methylation can occur incorrectly, and this may be driven by factors such as stress, diet and lifestyle.

For example, earlier this year a study found cigarette smoking led to the methylation-driven silencing of dozens of genes. Some of these genes came back to life five years after quitting smoking, but others remained permanently silenced. The silencing of such genes has been linked to many health issues, such as cancer.

Writing your own destiny and that of your kids

But smoking is just one way we can mess up our epigenome. There are many other factors that can change it, some even for the better. Eating well and taking regular exercise can help prevent cancer, diabetes and cardiovascular disease, and increasing evidence suggests this occurs through changes to the epigenome. Practicing mindfulness (focusing awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one's feelings, thoughts, and sensations) and enjoying green space can also help relieve stress and reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety. Mindfulness has also shown to affect the epigenome in a limited number of studies.

Equipped with the knowledge that DNA is not destiny, we have the power to influence our own wellbeing and that of generations to come. Future mothers and fathers can give their children a healthy start to life by maintaining a healthy weight, eating well and exercising regularly. These factors are likely to have the greatest improvement to a child’s epigenome within the first 1,000 days, from conception to age two.

Passing on the baton

Though the experiences of our parents and grandparents have shaped our lives, the legacy we pass onto our own children need not stop at our own genes. By educating our children and grandchildren about healthy lifestyle choices, we pass on something far more valuable. We teach them how to make the most of their genes and shape their own future regardless of what came before them. In turn they will teach this to their own children so the baton passes from generation to generation. We have the capacity to create a change that spans beyond our lifetime and betters the lives of our descendants.

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