Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Best wishes for a happy mutation

“i miss you
but i haven't met you yet
so special
but it hasn't happened yet
you are gorgeous
but i haven't met you yet
i remember
but it hasn't happened yet”

-Bjork, “I Miss You”

Ladies and gentlemen, the Freaking Coolest Health Discovery of Our Lifetime has finally hit the newswires. That’s right, while you were laughing at Heather and Jessica’s witty lambaste of Beyonce’s bizarre Oprah show gown, people whose brains threaten to unbalance the polar axis were busy figuring out why you’re such a procrastinator.

Ah, there's nothing like a fresh new reason to abdicate personal responsibility. Epigenetics, people. Mark my words: it will change human life as we know it. Here's some reading material for you:

Laypeople

People comfortable with science and scientific terminology

Adult virgins who have developed their own coding language

Epigenetics really, really simplified

Your gassy digestive system? Blame it on your great-great-great grandfather-to-the-power-of-45 and his love of savana wheatsprouts. Your fear of kittens? Might be down to that time your great-great grandmother-to-the-power-of-38 moved the whole damn family to sabre-tooth tiger country. (What was she thinking?)

We all know that most of our physical traits are hardwired into us through our genes. Since the discovery of DNA, scientists have been looking at ‘inheritance’—how we inherit genetic traits from our parents—and how genes affect non-physical things like behaviour. It’s the old Psych 101 ‘nature versus nurture’ discussion.

Well, the braniacs have recently begun to understand that in fact nature and nurture are not mutually exclusive. There’s a meta-system, a chemical soup if you will, that switches genes off and on—not in the womb, but over the course of our lives. This is epigenetics. Epi: prefix, Greek, means "upon."

So?

This epigenetic system influences the very core of who you are, genetically. It decides to switch the genes you are made of on and off. If it switches off, say, your genetic predisposition to cancer…well, you’re laughing, aren’t you?

One of the coolest things about epigenetics is that it suggests that our day-to-day experience and living environment affect who we are at a genetic level, on an ongoing basis--not just when our parents were 'swapping chromosomes' thirty-some years ago (nudge nudge wink wink). Not only does it affect who we are genetically over time, but we then pass this genetic information on to our kids, grandkids, great-grandkids, etc, so they are literally genetic reflections of our lives and experiences.

Okay, maybe I'm taking this too far now, but consider this: Does a certain scent trigger an inexplicable sadness or joy in you? Maybe it’s the scent of the old country—a place you’ve never been and yet which your body remembers. Do particular sounds or images seem oddly familiar though you’ve never encountered them before? It’s not inconceivable that you are having a genetic memory of something that happened to somebody else. If true, that is freaking cool.

Healing, responsibility, blah, blah, blah

Epigenetics has the potential to completely change the way we treat disease. One Canadian researcher at the forefront of this branch of science started with the objective of understanding the genetic causes of cancer. God love CBC, they had a great radio spot on him this morning (The Currrent, with Anna Maria Tremonti). He talked about experiments he’s doing in the lab where he is successfully reversing cancer in rats. Reversing cancer.

If we understand the epigenetic system—the metadata and chemicals that switch genetic bits and bytes on or off—we have the potential to control our genome through drugs. (!) Behaviour modification for rapists, healing for the diseased: this could change everything. Of course, knowing humans, we’ll also be dealing with mail-order perfecto-babies and cloned soldier-slave drones, but silver linings, people, silver linings.

Ah but with deeper knowledge comes great responsibility, Danielsan. When we didn’t realize we had such a profound genetic impact on our great-great grandchildren, our guilt extended only to the trash-heap of a planet we’re leaving them. Now we know we’re also passing along our personal turmoil, suffering, and bad habits.

"This work is at the forefront of a paradigm shift in scientific thinking. It will change the way the causes of disease are viewed, as well as the importance of lifestyles and family relationships. What people do no longer just affects themselves, but can determine the health of their children and grandchildren in decades to come. "We are," as Marcus Pembrey says, "all guardians of our genome.""

Oh. My. God. I don't think I can handle that kind of pressure. And I don't even have kids yet.

But it also means that we make them better, healthier humans through our joys and our successes and our surprising capacity to be good to each other.

8 Comments:

Blogger Moose said...

That's fascinating. Makes you wonder. When I was a kid, the sound of airplanes over head would make me physically duck and really, really want to find something to cower under. I didn't grow up in a war zone, this was before 9/11. Maybe I had a grandparent in London, circa WWII.

Or maybe I'm just nuts.

12:32 AM  
Blogger bobbysan said...

Makes sense. ALso relates to the oncoming of new disease or how people's immunity has changed over generations to accomodate the spread of disease or its affliction. I don't know how kids today can't eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich at school. What up with that????

9:59 AM  
Blogger whyioughtta said...

M: You're not nuts; I'm a believer.

B: Speaking of nuts, excellent point, bobbysan. This peanut allergy crisis happened in ONE GENERATION. Crazy.

12:20 PM  
Blogger Gizzy said...

Your epidermis is showing...

G.

3:38 PM  
Blogger Kav said...

I am equal parts afraid and fascinated.

7:25 PM  
Blogger Fat Sparrow said...

Never mind all that reversing cancer business, there's no money to be made there; when can I get naturally red hair?

And thanks for that poster pic; now I have The music to "Baba O'Riley" going through my head, with "It's only teenage cavemen...." as the lyrics. That's what happens when I read blogs when I am pissed as a newt.

Seriously though, it's only a matter of time before science can explain all of what we call religion, or philosophy, or psychology, or what have you. I have a Serious Bug Phobia (sounds so much more impressive when it's capitalized, doesn't it?) that I have had since I was a small toddler. My son also has the same phobia, although my daughter does not. It is not learned, I have made sure that my children will not learn it. My son started exhibiting phobic behavior in regard to bugs when he was not yet 3 months old. That's 3 months, people. He would hear the buzzing sound of a bug, and freeze up. He's now 3 years old, and the husband has been working with him to overcome it. At Hallowe'en, he would touch the plastic spiders, with encouragement, but only if they were not the black colored ones. He will not touch those for love nor money. He's okay now with ladybugs and butterflies, and he will fish out the dead mealworms from the bird's cage to play "wormies" with, which gives me the heebie jeebies, but that's beside the point.

Damn, I talk a lot. Off to get another drink. Happy Thanksgiving!

3:02 AM  
Blogger whyioughtta said...

G: Oops...then I guess I better get out my Epilady...

K: I know...Orwellian ain't it? As someone with kids, this is probably even more unnerving for you. Best not to think about it.

FS: I think I can help you out. I'll trade you your big boob genes and one of your look-underage-forever genes for my natural red hair gene. Fed Ex? (Happy Thanksgiving to you!)

8:29 AM  
Blogger Fat Sparrow said...

It's a deal!

2:51 AM  

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