Future Perfect

While armchair cruising with the Holiday Spirit and in between opportunities for overindulgence, I began to ponder on the importance of epigenetics in our lives. The subject has been active for about twenty years, although the origins go back to the 1890s. What is so fascinating is that things that we do today can affect our gene behavior, and we can pass that on down to our grandchildren without changing our basic gene make-up. The original study (turn of the nineteenth century stuff when people took meticulous notes) showed that a winter of Norwegian gluttony shortened the lifespan of the kids and grandkids. Now there’s a powerful message! The phrase ‘digging your grave with your teeth’ is probably one that those of us who are comfortably padded have heard in one form or another when cowering before the dreaded white coat at our annual medical inspection.

How does this work? Sections of our DNA can be de-activated either chemically or physically without altering its underlying structure. These aren’t mutations so the effects wear off over time, but I might not be able to wait long enough to outlast the effects of this season’s gluttony. In terms of short-term natural advantage, this ability to turn the dimmer switch up or down on parts of our gene messaging activity can help us cope with short-term changes in our environment. I should note that by ‘short-term’, I’m referring to geological time, not TV advertising time.

With the New Year about to start and the opportunity for resolutions around self-control, we should remember that the damage of those extra ten pounds of fat may last longer than the six-months of gym-time that it takes to remove them – our children born next Fall may have to live with the effects as well. That’s a scarier thought than most Christmas ghost stories.

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