What is epigenetics?
The term epigenetics is made up of the words genetics and epigenesis. The latter is the development of a living being. Epigenetics is a sub-field of genetics.
Epigenetics examines gene activity
Which genes are activated, and which are inactive? And how is this controlled? This is precisely what epigenetics looks at. During epigenetic processes, it’s not the DNA itself that changes, but the mechanisms that sit on or dock onto the genes – what’s known as the epigenome.
Epigenetics in simple terms
Identical twins are genetically identical, yet they can develop different medical conditions. In the explanatory video, we show what this has to do with epigenetics.
Why does the body need epigenetics?
Epigenetic changes enable the body's DNA to react to environmental influences. The epigenome is therefore the link between the environment and genes. But epigenetics is also needed for a fertilised egg cell to develop into a human being.
Can epigenetic changes be inherited?
In principle, we can also pass on epigenetic information to the following generations. For this to happen, however, certain conditions must apply:
- The epigenetic information must be in the germ cells (sperm or egg cells).
- The information must not be removed during fertilisation.
- Only epigenetic information on imprinted genes is not removed during fertilisation.
What is an imprinted gene?
Basically, we all have our genes twice – one from our father and one from our mother. In most cases, the interaction of the gene pair is responsible for which traits are expressed. In some gene pairs, however, one gene and its trait prevail more dominantly. If the gene is dominant because of its origin (father or mother), then it is an imprinted gene.
Researchers at the Max Planck Institute have discovered that epigenetics also plays an important role in the inheritance of trauma. Trauma produces epigenetic changes and these can be passed on to future generations.
Epigenetics and lifestyle – what you can do yourself
Our lifestyle therefore has an influence on our genetic make-up and that of our unborn children. Although not everything in the science has been researched yet, the right lifestyle changes can improve conditions.
- Diet: a varied diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and healthy fats (healthy oils) can have a beneficial impact on epigenetics.
Exercise: regular exercise can activate genes and thereby influence the way in which the body regulates metabolism, inflammatory response and cell repair.
- Reduce stress: chronic stress can have a negative impact on epigenetics and increase the risk of disease.
Avoid toxins: tobacco smoke, alcohol, air pollution and various chemicals can cause epigenetic changes and increase the risk of disease.
How does epigenetic regulation work?
Or simply put: how does the body activate certain genes but block others? Basically, there are three ways in which our body turns our genes off or on. It’s important to know that these epigenetic processes are reversible.
1. DNA methylation
Methyl groups attach themselves to our DNA like little padlocks and prevent a gene from being read. As a result, the gene is inactive and no mRNAs or proteins are produced. The characteristics of the gene do not express themselves.
2. Histone modification
In a sense, our DNA is rolled up, like on cable drums. We call these drums histones. When the body modifies the histones, it changes the distance between them. The modification influences whether genes are read or not.
3. Activity control through microRNAs
In this process, microRNAs dock onto mRNAs and prevent their conversion into proteins. Since proteins determine the structure and functioning of cells, the characteristics of the gene do not express themselves.
Thanks to new findings, we now know that treatments with epigenetic medication are possible. Medication can target the epigenome and fight the causes of a genetic disease.