Epigenetics: The science of rewriting your genetic destiny

You probably think your genetic code is fixed from birth. But your body is capable of changing more than you think. In fact, the way you live your life seems to have an impact on how your genes are expressed in your body through what scientists call epigenetics. And some research suggests that you can pass some of that genetic information on to your children.

This is a human body.

Inside it, you have billions and billions of cells. Brain cells, bone marrow cells, liver cells and many other completely different types of cells.

They have (almost) all the same DNA with exactly the same genes – this is your GENETIC INFORMATION.

That way you might say that your DNA is the recipe for the construction of a human body. A bit like the assembly instruction for a piece of furniture.

It may sound confusing that all cells have the same assembly instruction when we have so many different kinds of cells in the body. Which all perform many different tasks.

But that is because they do not read and interpret your DNA in the same way. There are various things that affect how your genes are read and interpreted.

It is, among other things, the EPIGENETIC INFORMATION that allows your genes to be interpreted and expressed in different ways.

Epigenetics is the Greek word for ‘on top of genetics’.

Often, it appears as marks on our genes. The marks tell which genes are important for the specific cell.

An epigenetic mark may both turn the gene on and off. And by turning different genes on and off, epigenetics contribute to develop different cell types such as intestinal cells, eye cells and all other kinds of cells.

Usually, we say that our DNA is unique to us, but identical twins actually have the exact same DNA. Still, they are not completely identical. Epigenetics contribute to their individuality.

Our genes remain the same throughout life, but the epigenetic marks can change little by little. And when that process goes awry, we can get very sick.

Cancer is one of the diseases that is sometimes associated with epigenetic changes. Anja Groth is a leading researcher in epigenetics, proteins and cancer and Professor at the Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Protein Research at the University of Copenhagen. She explains that epigenetics can function a bit like the cell's memory, because when the cell ‘forgets’ important information, things go wrong.

The researchers think that if the epigenetic marks can change themselves and lead to disease, then we could also change it to make us strong and healthy.

And it is already happening: There are some approved drugs that affect our epigenetic marks. But researchers like Anja Groth expect to see a much larger number of drugs get approved and enter the market in the coming years.

It may seem unnerving, but the way we live our lives can affect the epigenetic information recorded in our cells.

The factors that the researchers believe have an influence include smoking, diet, exercise, pollution, obesity, alcohol, stress.

Now, you may think that it is obvious that pollution or unhealthy lifestyle patterns such as smoking can affect our own health. But the research also suggests that we can pass on some of our epigenetic information to our children.

In the past, the genes in the form of DNA were thought to be the only thing we inherited from our mother and father. But with epigenetics, there has been a breakthrough in the understanding of heredity. It may no longer be just a gene lottery where we draw some lots from our mother and some from our father.

Parental epigenetics at the time of conception seems to matter. A mother’s health has been shown to directly affect her developing offspring. But what is less well understood is how a father’s health before conception has an affect on the developing embryo.

It was against this backdrop that researchers from the University of Copenhagen a few years ago had the idea to take a closer look at the epigenetic information in sperm cells.

Romain Barrès is Professor at the Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Basic Metabolic Research at the University of Copenhagen and conducts research into epigenetics and obesity.

He and his colleagues found that in rats, the epigenetic information in of the sperm cells of obese males are related to impaired glucose metabolism in the offspring, which is associated with type 2 diabetes and obesity.

In humans, the researchers found that the epigenetic information in sperm cells is different in obese men than compared to men with normal weight. In particular, they found differences in the genes that regulate appetite.

They also found that it is possible for men to have the epigenetic marks in their sperm altered. Obese men who had undergone gastric bypass surgery and therefore lost a lot of weight, show changes in the epigenetic marks in their sperm cells one year after their surgery.

The same was true in a trial involving untrained men with normal weight who underwent a training programme. Here, researchers could also find epigenetic changes in the sperm cells on the appetite-regulating genes.

If the epigenetic changes to a substantial extent are inherited in humans, you might say that the parents seem to be able to pass on a small part of their present life to their children, both through epigenetic changes to sperm and eggs before they are fertilised, and then later on as the resulting embryo develops.

It puts a great deal of responsibility on the shoulders of the parents if you yourself have an influence on what you pass on to your children through the life you live. But it is far from being that simple, explains Romain Barrès. Because while he has seen epigenetic transmission in animals, more research needs to be done in humans before the researchers are able to tell exactly what is going on.

Contacts: Professor Anja Groth

Professor Romain Barrés

Communications Officer Mathias Traczyk