Epigenetics…a key to the mystery of life

I am in mourning.  My morning ruined by the absence of my usual companion at Saturday breakfast, the Family section of the Guardian.  Instead there was a horrible advertising supplement aimed at parents.  A real sign of the times I suspect.  My favourite newspaper, like all print media, is having a hard time competing with on-line versions…the Guardian’s being free and very good, but not the same as having it on the table along with my toast and marmalade.

Some consolation, but of a different nature, was when Walter pointed out to me the review of Professor Tim Spector’s new book, Identically Different: Why You Can Change Your Genes.  As the reviewer Peter Forbes explains, this book is about epigenetics, one of the keys to explaining the mystery of life.  What has been known and understood for a while is that personal experience of the environment people find themselves in can change our genes – sometimes permanently, sometimes for the duration of the impinging influence.  Apparently London cabbies have ‘the knowledge’ – enhanced regions of the brain that start to recede when they retire (although this does not address an on-going question in my head about what sat-navs are doing to this much prized skill).  But what is continuing to puzzle geneticists is that some of these changes can be passed on to offspring and the effect – although it eventually disappears after three or four generations – can have profound consequences.  Apparently the people at the Human Genome project, who had assumed that sequencing the genome would be the key to personal health knowledge, have rather embarrassedly come to the conclusion that the genetic component of some multi-factorial diseases is exceptionally low.  This does not mean that genetics mean nothing, but it does mean that nurture and environment play a significant part in all our chances of developing the diseases that afflicted and perhaps killed our parents (or genetic progenitors).  This is particularly meaningful to me this month as in a few days time I will have reached the birthday that my mother did not live to see.  Both she and my father died before they were 65 and both had health problems that I do not have.  Both were heavy smokers and I have never smoked a cigarette in my life.  Neither of them ever took any exercise and I started as an athlete at school and am a regular gym attender now.

There also may be some meaning here for donor conceived people, many of whom are anxious about the health history of their donor and his or her family.  Maybe it’s not so important after all.



About oliviasview

Co-founder and now Practice Consultant at Donor Conception Network. Mother to two donor conceived adults and a son conceived without help in my first marriage.
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5 Responses to Epigenetics…a key to the mystery of life

  1. marilynn says:

    “There also may be some meaning here for donor conceived people, many of whom are anxious about the health history of their donor and his or her family. Maybe it’s not so important after all.”

    And so therefore its OK to take their family away from them. So it still does not put the commissioning parties in a true position of authority to where they should be able to sever a person’s ties with his or her genetic family but it makes it easier for them to say that its not that big a deal, so get over it. Kind of like when I would borrow a sweater from my Mom without asking and she’d get mad at me and I would say “it does not fit you anyway you don’t even need it!”, when I should have said “sorry, your right, I had no right to take it from you without asking: and handed her the sweater back. She would respond to my telling her she did not even need the sweater by saying “But it belongs to me and it does not matter whether I use it or not it is still not yours to take and do with what you please.” Cause that is stealing and it does not matter whether the person deserves what they have or not.

  2. oliviasview says:

    I’m not going to engage Marilynn. We will never agree about this.

  3. RachelP says:

    Olivia, I’m sure there was a Family section! Yours must have got mislaid.

    “There also may be some meaning here for donor conceived people, many of whom are anxious about the health history of their donor and his or her family. Maybe it’s not so important after all.”

    The key word there for me is ‘maybe’. Scientists are still debating all this stuff. Anyway, you know how I feel about this – it is not the DCN’s place to look for evidence in favour of donor conception, its job is to support parents who choose to have children using donor conception.

    Now don’t leap down my throat, but have you ever considered the possibility that parents who need to look for scientific evidence to back up their actions are maybe, maybe, not that comfortable with their decision to use donor conception?

  4. oliviasview says:

    I can only recommend the book Rachel. I’m about three quarters of the way through and it’s fascinating.

  5. RachelP says:

    I will check it out – I’ve been meaning to educate myself more about the nature/nurture debate. I have already read a bit about the environment changing people’s genes and those genes being passed on to their children – apparently parents who have scarlet fever are more likely than average to go on to have offspring who are diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder or display obsessive-compulsive traits; I thought that was very interesting because I know somebody who had scarlet fever whose daughter has OCD! Of course though that means some of DC people’s traits may be the result of environmental changes to their donor’s genes.

    That said, I still don’t think it’s wise to mix science with the politics/emotions around donor conception.

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