Keeping your DNA healthy is a relatively new idea, but it might be the key to avoiding many serious diseases.
Q : What is epigenetics and does it have anything to do with my health?
—José V., Greenville, S.C.
a: The word literally means “in addition to changes in the genetic sequence.” One of the marvels of evolution is that each human is very similar, yet unique. The reason we are unique is because one of billions of possible sperm and one of maybe a few thousand eggs came together to become each of us. So, the genetic blueprint for any given person will be a unique jumble of maternal and paternal genes that could mix and match in a nearly infinite configuration. That’s how we evolve—helpful traits get passed along because healthier people usually bear more healthy children, who in turn live and thrive to reproductive age.
However, there are other pressures on our genetic code involving factors that turn genes “on” and “off.” Our genetic code is a tightly packed bundle protected by a coating called histones. These can peel back to expose bits of the genetic blueprint in response to very specific “requests” from chemical information delivered to the cell, calling for the building of a certain protein, for example. Sometimes these chemical requests can get mixed up, and the wrong gene (for example, a cancer causing gene) can get turned on, or a repair enzyme can be made defectively. Epigenetic processes are natural and essential to many functions, but if they occur improperly, there can be major adverse health and behavioral effects.
Causes of Genetic Changes
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