Sunday, 29 April 2012

Elizabeth McReight's Blog

In 1801, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck presented the idea that evolution was due to organisms adapting to their external environment (Bar-Yam, 2011), but when Charles Darwin put forward his theory that evolution was caused by natural selection Lamarck became a scientific bench warmer. In 2002 Lamarck was finally put back into the game, with the discovery of epigenetics and the epigenome.

It’s a freezing winter’s day in the small town of Norrbotten in remote Sweden, the crops have failed and you have nothing to eat. You starve until finally, spring comes and the crops are overly fruitful, so you and your family eat in abundance (Cloud, 2010).   Fast track to the next century and your children and grandchildren are living six years less than your neighbors who weren’t so lucky with their crops (Cloud, 2010). Why is this you ask? Why are my offspring living shorter lives than the Petersen’s down the road? It was Dr. Lars Olov Bygren, a preventive-health specialist who found out.  

His research of this small town has lead to a new, and now ever expanding, field of genetics; epigenetics (Cloud, 2010). Epigenetics is the study of changes that do not involve alterations to the genetic code, but are still passed down to future generations. The epigenome sits on top of our regular genome and is responsible for genetic expression, or the turning off and on of genes. It is through the epigenome that external factors affect our genes. (It seems good old Lamarck got something right after all!) Want to find out more? Read on!,9171,1952313,00.html
Now we’ve been told repeatedly by news readers, parents, health teachers and magazines that smoking, overeating and eating unhealthily is bad for our health, but the advances in epigenetics have given way to a whole new level of boring advice that none of us really listen to, but seriously should. A study from the University of Southern California has shown that if your grandmother smoked while pregnant you have twice the chance of developing asthma, than your best friend whose grandmothers didn’t (n.a, 2008). (Thanks Nana)
What caused this increase? The researchers at the University of Southern California believe it is that nasty tobacco that changes your epigenetic switches during embryonic development.  Want to find out more? Read on!
What’s the plus side of this discovery? Scientists have been able to manipulate the epigenetic markers in their labs, meaning that drugs can be designed to treat genetic diseases that have no cures (Cloud, 2010). Already a drug has been designed and tested on people suffering from myelodysplastic syndrome. For those of us who have no idea what that is, basically it’s a rare and deadly blood disease. Not pleasant. In 2004 the drug was approved by the Food and Drug administration, and those given the drug lived for another two years after diagnosis, while those who weren’t only lived for fifteen months L (Cloud, 2010)

How do these drugs work? Basically, they silence the bad genes that are causing the problem, and turn on the good genes (Cloud, 2010). Since this drug was approved and tested there are now three more available, with hopefully more to come (Cloud, 2010). Epigenetics is the step forward scientists and doctors have needed in getting ahead of diseases such as cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s and autism and hopefully finding cures (Cloud, 2010). Want to find out more? Read on!,9171,1952313,00.html



Works Cited

[1] Bar-Yam, S., 2011. Lamarck vs Darwin. [Online]
Available at:
[Accessed 11 March 2012].
[2] Cloud, J., 2010. Why DNA isn't your destiny. [Online]
Available at:,9171,1952313,00.html
[Accessed 10 March 2012].
[3] n.a, 2008. Epigenetics and Smoking. [Online]
Available at:
[Accessed 15 March 2012].

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