The Conversation

The AWB Blog
3 Apr 2017

Our Connectedness: Epigenetics

The interaction of humans (genes) with their environment

Our last 3 blogs began a conversation on how we might expand our well-being.

  1. AWB Overview – AWB’s mission is to foster new habits of healing and wholeness and thereby inspire the development of evidenced-based standards and practices of wellbeing for individuals and institutions
  2. How Are We to Live Our Lives? – A path toward wholeness is a path towards our wellbeing
  3. Our Connectedness: Consider the Rose – The rose has nurtured and inspired many kinds of artists in a variety of cultures allowing us to enhance our own perceptions and enrich values in our relationships with people, places, and things

In coming weeks this blog will dig deeper into what science is learning about our connectedness. We will

  • Explore the science of epigenetics which studies how humans (and their genes) interact, or connect, with their environment
  • Use AWB’s principles to relate experiences in art and nature with epigenetics research

To begin we’ll discuss some fundamental concepts in molecular biology.

The Human Genome Contains Instructions for Making Proteins
Biological life consists of the interplay between two chemicals, DNA and protein. DNA is a molecule that has two important properties, it can

  • Copy itself and
  • Carry information on how to make proteins

Except for water, proteins are the most abundant substance in one’s body and found in each of our 100 trillion cells. Each cell has a nucleus which contains 2 complete sets of the human genome. Proteins are used in vital processes for

  • Repair and maintenance of body tissues
  • Fuel for energy
  • Hormones to control body functions, like insulin to control blood sugar
  • Enzymes to induce chemical reactions, e.g. digestion, DNA creation
  • Transportation and storage of molecules, like hemoglobin for carrying oxygen in the bloodstream
  • Antibodies to prevent infection and illness

The DNA molecule is a double helix: two long, thin strands twisted around each other like a spiral staircase

The Human Genome is the container for all human DNA and can be thought of as a kind of “cookbook” for creating proteins. The recipes for protein creation are called genes, which are specific lengths, or segments, of the DNA strand.

Gene expression is the process by which the instructions in our DNA are converted into a functional product, such as a protein. Gene expression acts as both an on and off switch to control when and in what amounts proteins are made.

The proteins created from gene expression influence how we work on the inside and how we look on the outside.

So, DNA contains the instructions for making proteins which serve as the mechanisms for living things.

The Epigenome is the Set of All Influences That Can Change the Genome
Many factors affect cells in development and through one’s life. They turn on and off depending on their job. The combined set of all these changes is called the Epigenome which describes changes to gene expression not changes to the DNA itself.

The video below, “Epigenome: The symphony in your cells,“ helps explain. It uses sheet music to represent the instructions found in DNA. Most cells in the human body contain the same DNA instructions, i.e. the same sheet music. Different cells, however, like different instruments, express the instructions on their terms. Instruments like flutes express the music they make like a flute not like a violin. Similarly heart cells express DNA instructions like heart cells and not like liver cells.

Moreover, instrumental players affect how the music ultimately sounds when played on their instruments. The sound can be in tune or not. It can sound too fast or too slow. In like manner epigenetic influences on the genome can cause gene expression to create proteins that are true to the recipe or not. Epigenetic influence can cause the creation of too many proteins or not enough.

Epigenome: The symphony in your cells

Scientists are now studying this epigenomic landscape to determine what cells do with their genetic code, how flexible it is, and what goes wrong in disease.

Epigenomic Change from Methylation, Histones and the Environment
Epigenomic changes are chemical tweaks to DNA and the proteins that package our DNA. Those changes don’t necessarily affect genes themselves, but rather certain regions of the code whose job it is to turn genes on or off. Types of epigenomic changes include

  1. DNA Methylation – a process that adds a chemical to the DNA to prime a gene so it is turned off
  2. Arrangement of Histone Proteins – DNA is wrapped around proteins called histones. The configuration of these histone packages and how close together they sit affect which and how many genes are read

Many changes from methylation or histone proteins are normal events but this can change over time. For example, as cells age some studies show an increase in methylation in older brains.

The environment too affects the epigenome, e.g. what you eat, if you smoke, whether you exercise.

The epigenome also contains hints of how epigenetic changes could be involved in diseases, including cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, and autoimmune diseases. This may present opportunity for drugs to target the epigenome to slow progression or eliminate disease.

Finally, cells can inherit not just the DNA (“sheet music”) but the epigenomic changes too. These can be passed on to the next generation of cells.

Epigenomics research is relatively new and fast growing in the areas of methylation, histones, the environment, disease, and heredity.

The Epigenome and AWB
What does the epigenome have to do with “The Art of Wellbeing?” As it turns out…a great deal!
But you’ll have to wait for our next blog to find out.

 Next Post:  Our Connectedness – Relationships and Behavior

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