DNA is the big book of you. All the genetic information used to build you is in there: your gender, how tall you’ll be, the color of your hair and even whether broccoli tastes bitter to you.
When you have children, you pass on that genetic information, along with your partner’s, to your children. While behavior during our lifetimes—diet, stress, inactivity—obviously affects our own health, scientists long believed that it had no impact on genetic materials we passed on to our offspring.
“That has changed,” says Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation scientist Courtney Griffin, Ph.D. “What we’re now learning is that the choices we make affect not only our own futures but also those of our children and grandchildren.”
In her laboratory at OMRF, Griffin is studying this emerging field, which is known as epigenetics.
“Epigenetic marks are chemical signals that tell the cell which genes should be turned on or shut off,” she said. “It turns out that all sorts of factors in our lives can alter our epigenetic marks, and we can pass those altered marks along to future generations.”
For example, Griffin said, studies in Sweden and England have shown that behavior such as smoking and overeating can have major impacts on future generations, sometimes dropping lifespan by decades.
Griffin and Carol Curtis, Ph.D., a post-doctoral fellow at OMRF, recently published a paper on the role of epigenetics in the development of the vascular system. Their work, which appears in the journal Molecular and Cellular Biology, shows how competing epigenetic signals can affect the same cellular function.
“We studied how a pair of enzymes, called BRG1 and CHD4, turn on or off the genes responsible for the creation of new blood vessels in developing mice,” Curtis said. “Both are necessary for making sure the vessels are properly growing. Too few or too many blood vessels would be a problem.”
The research was funded through grants from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute and the National Center for Research Resources.
Scientists are hoping these types of studies will lead to therapeutics that can alter epigenetic signals to turn on beneficial genes and suppress those that might cause harm. In the meantime, Griffin said it’s up to individuals to make lifestyle changes.
“It’s kind of freeing to know that we’re not locked into a predetermined genetic destiny. By making better choices now, you can help yourself, your future kids and their kids,” she said.