Joseph F. McCaffrey MD, FACS


Can You Change Your Genetic Destiny?

Are you a slave of your genes?

That is, do genes determine everything?

We all know that some things – like the color of our eyes – are determined by our genes.Is everything determined by our genes?

The answer to this question has huge implications. Are kindness, violence, intelligence, wit, stupidity and all other human traits the pure results of genetic inheritance? If so, is gene manipulation the only way to change things?

The “nature vs. nurture” debate has gone on for a long time. Is it the genes or the environment? For a while, it looked like genes were the answer - the explosion of knowledge about genes tilted the balance toward a deterministic view. That is: “It’s in your genes.”

Some factors are very strongly influenced by genes.Most of the time, the genes we inherit merely indicate a tendency toward a certain state. What we do and our environment determines the actual outcome.

Science has unraveled a bit of the puzzle of how this works. There has been too much emphasis on genetic determinism and not enough on environmental influences. The new science called epigenetics changes that.

The Greek word “epi” means upon. As a prefix here, epi- means on or above genetics. Epigenetics studies what really controls genes.

You have probably heard of the Human Genome Project – the effort to map out all the genes in human DNA. The effort was a great success.

What you may not have heard is that the DNA mappers didn’t find nearly as many genes as they predicted. This shocked the research community – accepted genetic dogma was completely wrong!

Previous thinking held that one gene produced one protein and that additional genes were required for regulation. The genome project found less than 80% of the genes that would be required if this was the way things work.

It turned out that humans have only a few thousand more genes than primitive worms and about the same number as rodents. Obviously, DNA alone doesn’t explain the vastly greater complexity of human beings. Epigenetics wants to find out what does. The initial research is exciting.

The genetic material, the actual DNA, resides in the chromosomes of the cells. These chromosomes are composed of the DNA covered by layers of protein material.

Those proteins surrounding the DNA turn out to be critical. These are regulatory proteins – whether or not and to what extent a gene is expressed depends on them. The regulatory proteins in turn respond to environment.

In an amazing experiment, researchers took two groups of mice with an identical abnormal gene. This gene causes mice born with it to have yellow fur instead of the normal brown fur and overeat to the point of obesity. The scientists gave one group a standard mouse diet. The other group had the same diet with added supplements. The scientists then waited to see what happened to the offspring of the two groups. The results were dramatic.

The offspring of the mice given the supplements grew up with brown fur and of normal weight! In other words, their genes did not determine their destiny. The effect of a gene that definitely determined an outcome could be overridden by environmental factors – in this case diet of the mother. (1)

Some researchers suggest that the influence of the regulatory factors can cause one gene to produce over 2,000 different proteins. (2) The environment plays a definite role in the actions of the regulatory genes.

What does all this mean to you? Can you use this information?

Well, first, this is both liberating and sobering. Liberating because it means our genes don’t determine our life. Sobering because now we have to accept responsibility for our own life. Our choices affect our internal state and hence which genes get expressed in what way.

The influence of regulatory genes is probably part of why a healthy lifestyle works as well as it does.

In future notes I’ll keep you informed about developments in this area and what specifically you can do to take advantage of current research.

One example is the now well known fact that women who supplement with 400mcg of folic acid a day prior to conception and through pregnancy are less than half as likely to give birth to a child with the devastating birth defect of spinal bifida.

I try not to rage too much against “the system” but I can’t help but respond with anger and disgust every time I recall that the FDA prohibited supplement manufacturers from promoting this fact for years after the science was proven. I don’t want to think about how much suffering and heart ache could have been prevented if clear thinking had prevailed over bureaucracy.

I think it’s reasonable to give people current information and let them make their own decisions. That’s what I try to do for you in my writing.

1) Waterland and Jirtle. Transposable elements: Targets for early nutritional effects on epigenetic gene regulation.

Molecular and Cell Biology (2003). 23(15):5293-5300

2) Bray. Molecular Prodigality

Science (2003). 299:1189-1190.

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