When James Watson and Francis Crick first discovered the structure of DNA in 1953 they thought they had discovered the secret of life. This complex nucleic acid was capable of storing all of the information necessary to produce and maintain a living organism. The science of genetics was born and moved toward a complete understanding of the gene culminating in the genome project which mapped the human genome in 1993.
Our genes determine what our bodies look like and how they work. Even behavioral traits have been linked to our genes. Information is thought to flow down a one way street; from the DNA wellspring to cells to the rest of the body. This concept of one-way information flow is even called the central dogma of biology. But are we really slaves to our genes?
Watson and Crick’s monumental discovery was a giant step in understanding the inner workings of life but it was not the whole story. The idea of a one-way flow of information is now changing with the new science of epigenetics. Epigenetics has to do with changes in the function of genes without changing DNA. In other words there may be a complex information system that affects the information flow from DNA to the cell without affecting the DNA itself. This system is affected by behavioral and environmental changes. This means that you may be able to change the information flow from DNA without actually changing the structure of DNA.
This idea has widespread ramifications. It is now thought that chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease are not solely caused by genes but also have a strong behavioral component. Information not only travels from DNA to cells but can also travel back to DNA from outside sources. There is a feedback loop of information flowing to and from DNA. The system consists of more than a static one-way flow of information but is more holistic and dynamic in nature involving feedback from the organism.
A practical implication of this concept is the feedback from behaviors. For example, following a healthy lifestyle can not only provide benefits to your wellbeing but these benefits can also be passed on to your offspring. We have been touting the benefits of following a healthy lifestyle for years but until recently no one knew that actual genes could be turned on or off.
This opens up a whole new realm of thinking. In other words someone may have a gene for cancer or heart disease but it is possible for that gene never to be turned on. I personally find this information hopeful in finding new ways to live a healthy life and to heal. We are not slaves to our genes after all.
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