What Is Epigenetics?

by Scott Morrice on 03/23/2012

What is epigenetics? Are you looking for an epigenitics definition? It is a term that is in much use these days.

The central theme of Bruce Lipton’s book  The Biology of Belief, which I have already referred to in my What Is Biology Of Belief and Embracing Holistic Wellness posts, is that it is not our DNA which is the most important factor in controlling our bodies and our health, but rather it is the way in which our belief system reacts to our environment. And because both our beliefs and our environment are subject to our influence, and therefore change, we really are masters of our own fate.

Lipton refers to this new emphasis as the “New Biology”, distinguishing it from what Lipton labels as biology’s Central Dogma, the idea that genes control life, and that therefore we are hostages to our heredity.

Lipton goes on to note that epigenetics, which is defined as the study of molecular mechanisms by which the environment controls gene activity, has come to be one of today’s most active areas of scientific research.

It is acknowledged that genes make up the DNA blueprint that we pass on to our future generations. But what the science of epigenetics teaches us is that environmental influences can modify those genes without actually changing their basic blueprint, and that these modifications can also be passed on to future generations! So epigenetics is telling us that there are actually two methods by which we pass on our hereditary information. The first is by way of our genetic blueprint, as we always have always assumed, and the second is by way of epigenetic mechanisms.

Lipton uses a couple of neat analogies to explain how this all works.

First of all he suggests that we conceptualize the DNA strand as our bare arm. And asks us to imagine that around our bare arm we are wearing the sleeve of a shirt. In this picture, the sleeve is analogous to the regulatory proteins that surround and cover the DNA strand. While we are wearing the sleeve, the genes on a DNA strand can’t be seen to be read, which is necessary for them to be copied. But in the event of an environmental signal that causes the sleeve to come off (by causing the protein to change shape), then of course the genes are laid bare, which would now allow them to be copied (duplicated). So, in a very real sense, it is the environmental signal which is ultimately the important controlling factor in this gene activity.

The second analogy that Lipton uses is the old test pattern that you used to see on TV screens when there was no TV signal. He suggests that we assume that the test pattern is analogous to the gene blueprint for a particular genetic feature (like blue eyes). And although you can modify the appearance of the TV test pattern by moving the necessary dials on the TV to change its color, brightness, contrast and so on, you are not actually changing the broadcast TV test pattern. He suggests that this is the same as with the regulatory proteins that surround the DNA strand. Environmental signals (“epigenetic dials” as he calls them) apparently can create 2,000 or more variations from the same (blue eyes) gene blueprint. And, as I mentioned earlier, the results of this “fine tuning” can be passed from generation to generation.

Lipton writes that epigenetics is also a factor in many diseases that we commonly attribute to genetic influence, such as cancer and cardiovascular disease. In fact he says that only about 5% of those patients can attribute their disease to heredity. A significant number of those patients are actually victims of the environmental “fine tuning” I have already referred to, and not defective genes.

The significance of these findings cannot be overstated. Our environment, and the way we perceive our environment, is even more pivotal to our well being than we had previously thought, and I will be coming back to this idea again in my next post.

I’ll keep you posted.

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