DNA Is Not Destiny: The New Science of Epigenetics

Discoveries in epigenetics are rewriting the rules of disease, heredity, and identity.

By Ethan Watters
Nov 22, 2006 12:00 AMJul 11, 2023 4:03 PM


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Back in 2000, Randy Jirtle, a professor of radiation oncology at Duke University, and his postdoctoral student Robert Waterland designed a groundbreaking genetic experiment that was simplicity itself. They started with pairs of fat yellow mice known to scientists as agouti mice, so called because they carry a particular gene—the agouti gene—that in addition to making the rodents ravenous and yellow renders them prone to cancer and diabetes. Jirtle and Waterland set about to see if they could change the unfortunate genetic legacy of these little creatures. Typically, when agouti mice breed, most of the offspring are identical to the parents: just as yellow, fat as pincushions, and susceptible to life-shortening disease. The parent mice in Jirtle and Waterland's experiment, however, produced a majority of offspring that looked altogether different. These young mice were slender and mousy brown. Moreover, they did not display their parents' susceptibility to cancer and diabetes and lived to a spry old age. The effects of the agouti gene had been virtually erased. Remarkably, the researchers effected this transformation without altering a single letter of the mouse's DNA. Their approach instead was radically straightforward—they changed the moms' diet. Starting just before conception, Jirtle and Waterland fed a test group of mother mice a diet rich in methyl donors, small chemical clusters that can attach to a gene and turn it off. These molecules are common in the environment and are found in many foods, including onions, garlic, beets, and in the food supplements often given to pregnant women. After being consumed by the mothers, the methyl donors worked their way into the developing embryos' chromosomes and onto the critical agouti gene. The mothers passed along the agouti gene to their children intact, but thanks to their methyl-rich pregnancy diet, they had added to the gene a chemical switch that dimmed the gene's deleterious effects. "It was a little eerie and a little scary to see how something as subtle as a nutritional change in the pregnant mother rat could have such a dramatic impact on the gene expression of the baby," Jirtle says. "The results showed how important epigenetic changes could be." Our DNA—specifically the 25,000 genes identified by the Human Genome Project—is now widely regarded as the instruction book for the human body. But genes themselves need instructions for what to do, and where and when to do it. A human liver cell contains the same DNA as a brain cell, yet somehow it knows to code only those proteins needed for the functioning of the liver. Those instructions are found not in the letters of the DNA itself but on it, in an array of chemical markers and switches, known collectively as the epigenome, that lie along the length of the double helix. These epigenetic switches and markers in turn help switch on or off the expression of particular genes. Think of the epigenome as a complex software code, capable of inducing the DNA hardware to manufacture an impressive variety of proteins, cell types, and individuals. The even greater surprise is the recent discovery that epigenetic signals from the environment can be passed on from one generation to the next, sometimes for several generations, without changing a single gene sequence. It's well established, of course, that environmental effects like radiation, which alter the genetic sequences in a sex cell's DNA, can leave a mark on subsequent generations. Likewise, it's known that the environment in a mother's womb can alter the development of a fetus. What's eye-opening is a growing body of evidence suggesting that the epigenetic changes wrought by one's diet, behavior, or surroundings can work their way into the germ line and echo far into the future. Put simply, and as bizarre as it may sound, what you eat or smoke today could affect the health and behavior of your great-grandchildren.In recent years, epigenetics researchers have made great strides in understanding the many molecular sequences and patterns that determine which genes can be turned on and off. Their work has made it increasingly clear that for all the popular attention devoted to genome-sequencing projects, the epigenome is just as critical as DNA to the healthy development of organisms, humans included. Jirtle and Waterland's experiment was a benchmark demonstration that the epigenome is sensitive to cues from the environment. More and more, researchers are finding that an extra bit of a vitamin, a brief exposure to a toxin, even an added dose of mothering can tweak the epigenome—and thereby alter the software of our genes—in ways that affect an individual's body and brain for life. All of these discoveries are shaking the modern biological and social certainties about genetics and identity. We commonly accept the notion that through our DNA we are destined to have particular body shapes, personalities, and diseases. Some scholars even contend that the genetic code predetermines intelligence and is the root cause of many social ills, including poverty, crime, and violence. "Gene as fate" has become conventional wisdom. Through the study of epigenetics, that notion at last may be proved outdated. Suddenly, for better or worse, we appear to have a measure of control over our genetic legacy. "Epigenetics is proving we have some responsibility for the integrity of our genome," Jirtle says. "Before, genes predetermined outcomes. Now everything we do—everything we eat or smoke—can affect our gene expression and that of future generations. Epigenetics introduces the concept of free will into our idea of genetics." Scientists are still coming to understand the many ways that epigenetic changes unfold at the biochemical level. One form of epigenetic change physically blocks access to the genes by altering what is called the histone code. The DNA in every cell is tightly wound around proteins known as histones and must be unwound to be transcribed. Alterations to this packaging cause certain genes to be more or less available to the cell's chemical machinery and so determine whether those genes are expressed or silenced. A second, well-understood form of epigenetic signaling, called DNA methylation, involves the addition of a methyl group—a carbon atom plus three hydrogen atoms—to particular bases in the DNA sequence. This interferes with the chemical signals that would put the gene into action and thus effectively silences the gene. Until recently, the pattern of an individual's epigenome was thought to be firmly established during early fetal development. Although that is still seen as a critical period, scientists have lately discovered that the epigenome can change in response to the environment throughout an individual's lifetime. Epigenetic Changes "People used to think that once your epigenetic code was laid down in early development, that was it for life," says Moshe Szyf, a pharmacologist with a bustling lab at McGill University in Montreal. "But life is changing all the time, and the epigenetic code that controls your DNA is turning out to be the mechanism through which we change along with it. Epigenetics tells us that little things in life can have an effect of great magnitude." Szyf has been a pioneer in linking epigenetic changes to the development of diseases. He long ago championed the idea that epigenetic patterns can shift through life and that those changes are important in the establishment and spread of cancer. For 15 years, however, he had little luck convincing his colleagues. One of his papers was dismissed by a reviewer as a "misguided attempt at scientific humor." On another occasion, a prominent scientist took him aside and told him bluntly, "Let me be clear: Cancer is genetic in origin, not epigenetic." Despite such opposition, Szyf and other researchers have persevered. Through numerous studies, Szyf has found that common signaling pathways known to lead to cancerous tumors also activate the DNA-methylation machinery; knocking out one of the enzymes in that pathway prevents the tumors from developing. When genes that typically act to suppress tumors are methylated, the tumors metastasize. Likewise, when genes that typically promote tumor growth are demethylated—that is, the dimmer switches that are normally present are removed—those genes kick into action and cause tumors to grow. Szyf is now far from alone in the field. Other researchers have identified dozens of genes, all related to the growth and spread of cancer, that become over- or undermethylated when the disease gets under way. The bacteria Helicobacter, believed to be a cause of stomach cancer, has been shown to trigger potentially cancer-inducing epigenetic changes in gut cells. Abnormal methylation patterns have been found in many cancers of the colon, stomach, cervix, prostate, thyroid, and breast. Szyf views the link between epigenetics and cancer with a hopeful eye. Unlike genetic mutations, epigenetic changes are potentially reversible. A mutated gene is unlikely to mutate back to normal; the only recourse is to kill or cut out all the cells carrying the defective code. But a gene with a defective methylation pattern might very well be encouraged to reestablish a healthy pattern and continue to function. Already one epigenetic drug, 5-azacytidine, has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration for use against myelodysplastic syndrome, also known as preleukemia or smoldering leukemia. At least eight other epigenetic drugs are currently in different stages of development or human trials. Methylation patterns also hold promise as diagnostic tools, potentially yielding critical information about the odds that a cancer will respond to treatment. A Berlin-based company called Epigenomics, in partnership with Roche Pharmaceuticals, expects to bring an epigenetic screening test for colon cancer to market by 2008. They are working on similar diagnostic tools for breast cancer and prostate cancer. Szyf has cofounded a company, MethylGene, that so far has developed two epigenetic cancer drugs with promising results in human trials. Others have published data on animal subjects suggesting an epigenetic component to inflammatory diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, neurodegenerative diseases, and diabetes. Other researchers are focusing on how people might maintain the integrity of their epigenomes through diet. Baylor College of Medicine obstetrician and geneticist Ignatia Van den Veyver suggests that once we understand the connection between our epigenome and diseases like cancer, lifelong "methylation diets" may be the trick to staying healthy. Such diets, she says, could be tailored to an individual's genetic makeup, as well as to their exposure to toxins or cancer-causing agents. In 2003 biologist Ming Zhu Fang and her colleagues at Rutgers University published a paper in the journal Cancer Research on the epigenetic effects of green tea. In animal studies, green tea prevented the growth of cancers in several organs. Fang found that epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG), the major polyphenol from green tea, can prevent deleterious methylation dimmer switches from landing on (and shutting down) certain cancer-fighting genes. The researchers described the study as the first to demonstrate that a consumer product can inhibit DNA methylation. Fang and her colleagues have since gone on to show that genistein and other compounds in soy show similar epigenetic effects. Meanwhile, epigenetic researchers around the globe are rallying behind the idea of a human epigenome project, which would aim to map our entire epigenome. The Human Genome Project, which sequenced the 3 billion pairs of nucleotide bases in human DNA, was a piece of cake in comparison: Epigenetic markers and patterns are different in every tissue type in the human body and also change over time. "The epigenome project is much more difficult than the Human Genome Project," Jirtle says. "A single individual doesn't have one epigenome but a multitude of them." Research centers in Japan, Europe, and the United States have all begun individual pilot studies to assess the difficulty of such a project. The early signs are encouraging. In June, the European Human Epigenome Project released its data on epigenetic patterns of three human chromosomes. A recent flurry of conferences have forwarded the idea of creating an international epigenome project that could centralize the data, set goals for different groups, and standardize the technology for decoding epigenetic patterns. Until recently, the idea that your environment might change your heredity without changing a gene sequence was scientific heresy. Everyday influences—the weights Dad lifts to make himself muscle-bound, the diet regimen Mom follows to lose pounds—don't produce stronger or slimmer progeny, because those changes don't affect the germ cells involved in making children. Even after the principles of epigenetics came to light, it was believed that methylation marks and other epigenetic changes to a parent's DNA were lost during the process of cell division that generates eggs and sperm and that only the gene sequence remained. In effect, it was thought, germ cells wiped the slate clean for the next generation. That turns out not to be the case. In 1999 biologist Emma Whitelaw, now at the Queensland Institute of Medical Research in Australia, demonstrated that epigenetic marks could be passed from one generation of mammals to the next. (The phenomenon had already been demonstrated in plants and yeast.) Like Jirtle and Waterland in 2003, Whitelaw focused on the agouti gene in mice, but the implications of her experiment span the animal kingdoms.

"It changes the way we think about information transfer across generations," Whitelaw says. "The mind-set at the moment is that the information we inherit from our parents is in the form of DNA. Our experiment demonstrates that it's more than just DNA you inherit. In a sense that's obvious, because what we inherit from our parents are chromosomes, and chromosomes are only 50 percent DNA. The other 50 percent is made up of protein molecules, and these proteins carry the epigenetic marks and information."

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