Grandma’s Experiences Leave Epigenetic Mark on Your Genes

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Your ancestors' lousy childhoods or excellent adventures might change your personality, bequeathing anxiety or resilience by altering the epigenetic expressions of genes in the brain.

Darwin and Freud walk into a bar. Two alcoholic mice — a mother and her son — sit on two bar stools, lapping gin from two thimbles.

The mother mouse looks up and says, “Hey, geniuses, tell me how my son got into this sorry state.”

“Bad inheritance,” says Darwin.

“Bad mothering,” says Freud.

For over a hundred years, those two views — nature or nurture, biology or psychology — offered opposing explanations for how behaviors develop and persist, not only within a single individual but across generations.

And then, in 1992, two young scientists following in Freud’s and Darwin’s footsteps actually did walk into a bar. And by the time they walked out, a few beers later, they had begun to forge a revolutionary new synthesis of how life experiences could directly affect your genes — and not only your own life experiences, but those of your mother’s, grandmother’s and beyond.

The bar was in Madrid, where the Cajal Institute, Spain’s oldest academic center for the study of neurobiology, was holding an international meeting. Moshe Szyf, a molecular biologist and geneticist at McGill University in Montreal, had never studied psychology or neurology, but he had been talked into attending by a colleague who thought his work might have some application. Likewise, Michael Meaney, a McGill neurobiologist, had been talked into attending by the same colleague, who thought Meaney’s research into animal models of maternal neglect might benefit from Szyf’s perspective.

“I can still visualize the place — it was a corner bar that specialized in pizza,” Meaney says. “Moshe, being kosher, was interested in kosher calories. Beer is kosher. Moshe can drink beer anywhere. And I’m Irish. So it was perfect.”

The two engaged in animated conversation about a hot new line of research in genetics. Since the 1970s, researchers had known that the tightly wound spools of DNA inside each cell’s nucleus require something extra to tell them exactly which genes to transcribe, whether for a heart cell, a liver cell or a brain cell. 

Written By: Dan Hurley
continue to source article at discovermagazine.com

10 COMMENTS

  1. I am going to go over this article several more times before I come to any conclusions. Some of the work ( on mice ) is known to me. Some other work ( blood testing ) is new to me.

    I am prepared to change my mind about epigenetics, that is beyond methylation in the imprinting sense and acetyl loosening on histones ( I learned this in college biology ), but the actual papers will have to be read here. Not this nonsense.

    ” For over a hundred years, those two views — nature or nurture, biology or psychology — offered opposing explanations for how behaviors develop and persist, not only within a single individual but across generations.”

    As any educated person knows it is not a dichotomy here but it is nature via nurture. ( Matt Ridley ) And it would be better to keep Freud out of this anyway!

    A lot of refereed papers are referred to here but a magazine can not cover all bases, and no bases adequately

    Other opinions on this?.

  2. Article ends with, “If such a pill could free the genes within your brain of the epigenetic detritus left by all the wars, the rapes, the abandonments and cheated childhoods of your ancestors, would you take it?”

    As someone who struggles with depression, the answer is yes, yes, and hell yes.

  3. Every good story and descovery starts from some guys going to a bar and start having beers!

  4. In reply to #1 by Neodarwinian:

    other opinions on this?

    Try searching the archive at Jerry Coyne’s website.

    Chris

  5. The title is completely at odds with what’s actually present in the article. Most of it discusses the effect of methylation on gene expression in a single individual as they get older and as a result of early experiences. At no point does it demonstrate that these lifelong modifications are inherited, much less that the acquired behavioural traits are inherited along with them. Just because it modifies DNA expression in the brain, doesn’t mean the gametes in the gonads are getting any feedback.

    Only on the last page does it make any attempt to prove that the epigenetic modifications – acquired behavioural traits – are inherited, and the experiment doesn’t even provide conclusive evidence for that. Not only does it make no attempt to distinguish it from the Baldwin effect, but it points out in the article itself that the tests could have been confounded by the mother’s responses to the father’s prior behaviour.

    Another sensationalist article blowing fascinating experiments out of proportion.

  6. Reading this article brought to memory Steven Pinker’s wonderful response to this year’s Edge.org question. I think the author and/or publisher of this article could be suffering from some of the confusion of terms Pinker highlights.

  7. In reply to #6 by AULhall:

    Reading this article brought to memory Steven Pinker’s wonderful response to this year’s Edge.org question. I think the author and/or publisher of this article could be suffering from some of the confusion of terms Pinker mentions.

    Crikey yeah, I forgot about that, and I was the one who posted a link to it in one of the discussions. Ta for that!

    I think this is a particularly relevant bit:

    Genes: Molecular biologists have appropriated the term “gene” to refer to stretches of DNA that code for a protein. Unfortunately, this sense differs from the one used in population genetics, behavioral genetics, and evolutionary theory, namely any information carrier that is transmissible across generations and has sustained effects on the phenotype. This includes any aspect of DNA that can affect gene expression, and is closer to what is meant by “innate” than genes in the molecular biologists’ narrow sense. The confusion between the two leads to innumerable red herrings in discussions of our makeup, such as the banality that the expression of genes (in the sense of protein-coding stretches of DNA) is regulated by signals from the environment. How else could it be? The alternative is that every cell synthesizes every protein all the time! The epigenetics bubble inflated by the science media is based on a similar confusion.

  8. In reply to The Article:

    Why can’t we just take a drug to rinse away the unwanted methyl groups like a bar of epigenetic Irish Spring? The hunt is on. Giant pharmaceutical and smaller biotech firms are searching for epigenetic compounds to boost learning and memory. It has been lost on no one that epigenetic medications might succeed in treating depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder where today’s psychiatric drugs have failed.

    Yeah, “Methyl Groups” does sound a little more scientific than “Unwanted Body Thetans.” My instincts tell me that the primary causes of depression are neurotransmitters that are improperly wired, and that eventually, the treatment for it will more likely involve some sort of invasive surgery than a pill or an injection. Unfortunately, we’ve only just begun to map out exactly what’s going on inside our heads, and that level of technology probably won’t come into fruition in the lifetimes of anybody currently living.

  9. It amazed me to realise that the egg that made me was ‘alive’ 35 years before I was conceived and later born in 1970 – My egg waited in my mothers ovary since before she was born from my grandmothers womb …..in 1935

    So yeah my maternal grandmother, her diet, health and surroundings affected me on several levels…

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