helen_fisher's picture
Biological Anthropologist, Rutgers University; Author, Why Him? Why Her? How to Find and Keep Lasting Love


To me, epigenetics is the most monumental explanation to emerge in the social and biological sciences since Darwin proposed his theories of Natural Selection and Sexual Selection. Over 2,500 articles, many scientific meetings, the formation of the San Diego Epigenome Center as well as other institutes, a five-year Epigenomics Program launched in 2008 by the National Institutes of Health, and many other institutions, academic forums and people are now devoted to this new field. Although epigenetics has been defined in several ways, all are based in the central concept that environmental forces can affect gene behavior, either turning genes on or off. As an anthropologist untrained in advanced genetics, I won't attempt to explain the processes involved, although two basic mechanisms are known: one involves molecules known as methyl-groups that latch on to DNA to suppress and silence gene expression; the other involves molecules known as acetyl-groups which activate and enhance gene expression.

The consequences of epigenetic mechanisms are likely to be phenomenal. Scientists now hypothesize that epigenetic factors play a role in the etiology of many diseases, conditions and human variations—from cancers, to clinical depression and mental illnesses, to human behavioral and cultural variations.

Take the Moroccan Amazighs or Berbers, people with highly similar genetic profiles who now reside in three different environments: some roam the deserts as nomads; some farm the mountain slopes; some live in the towns and cities along the Moroccan coast. And depending on where they live, up to one-third of their genes are differentially expressed, reports researcher Youssef Idaghdour.

 For example, among the urbanites, some genes in the respiratory system are switched on—perhaps, Idaghdour suggests, to counteract their new vulnerability to asthma and bronchitis in these smoggy surroundings. Idaghdour and his colleague Greg Gibson, propose that epigenetic mechanisms have altered the expression of many genes in these three Berber populations, producing their population differences.

 Psychiatrists, psychologists and therapists have long been preoccupied with our childhood experiences, specifically how these sculpt our adult attitudes and behaviors. Yet they have focused on how the brain integrates and remembers these occurrences. Epigenetic studies provide a different explanation.

As an example, mother rats that spend more time licking and grooming their young during the first week after birth produce infants who later become better adjusted adults. And researcher Moshe Szyf proposes that this behavioral adjustment occurs because epigenetic mechanisms are triggered during this "critical period," producing a more active version of a gene that encodes a specific protein. Then this protein, via complex pathways, sets up a feedback loop in the hippocampus of the brain—enabling these rats to cope more efficiently with stress.

These behavioral modifications remain stable through adulthood. However, Szyf notes that when specific chemicals were injected into the adult rat's brain to alter these epigenetic processes and suppress this gene expression, well-adjusted rats became anxious and frightened. And when different chemicals are injected to trigger epigenetic processes that enhance the expression of this gene instead, fearful adult rats (that had received little maternal care in infancy) became more relaxed.

 Genes hold the instructions; epigenetic factors direct how those instructions are carried out. And as we age, scientists report, these epigenetic processes continue to modify and build who we are. Fifty-year-old twins, for example, show three times more epigenetic modifications than do three-year-old twins; and twins reared apart show more epigenetic alterations than those who grow up together. Epigenetic investigations are proving that genes are not destiny; but neither is the environment—even in people.

Shelley Taylor has shown this. Studying an allele (genetic variant) in the serotonin system, she and colleagues were able to demonstrate that the symptoms of depression are visible only when this allele is expressed in combination with specific environmental conditions. Moreover, Taylor maintains that individuals growing up in unstable households are likely to suffer all their lives with depression, anxiety, specific cancers, heart disease, diabetes or obesity. Epigenetics at work? Probably.

 Even more remarkable, some epigenetic instructions are passed from one generation to the next. Trans-generational epigenetic modifications are now documented in plants and fungi, and have been suggested in mice. Genes are like the keys on a piano; epigenetic processes direct how these keys are played—modifying the tune, even passing these modifications to future generations. Indeed, in 2010, scientists wrote in Science magazine that epigenetic systems are now regarded as "heritable, self-perpetuating and reversible."

 If epigenetic mechanisms can not only modulate our intellectual and physical capacities, but also pass these alterations to our descendants, epigenetics has immense and profound implications for the origin, evolution and future of life on earth. In coming decades scientists studying epigenetics may come to understand how myriad environmental forces impact our health and longevity in specific ways, find cures for many human diseases and conditions, and explain intricate variations in human personality.

The 18th century philosopher, John Locke, was convinced that the human mind is an empty slate upon which the environment inscribes personality. With equal self-assurance, others have been convinced that genes orchestrate our development, illnesses and life styles. Yet social scientists had failed for decades to explain the mechanisms governing behavioral variations between twins, family members and culture groups. And biological scientists had failed to pinpoint the genetic foundations of many mental illnesses and complex diseases. The central mechanism to explain these complex issues has been found.

 I am hardly the first to hail this new field of biology as revolutionary—the fundamental process by which nature and nurture interact. But to me as an anthropologist long trying to take a middle road in a scientific discipline intractably immersed in nature-versus-nurture warfare, epigenetics is the missing link.