By: Annie Hu
The concept of nature vs. nurture is a common yet age-old debate. “Nature” refers to the genetic traits a child is born with, while “nurture” reflects their life experiences. For centuries, we have debated which plays a bigger role in shaping human personality and health. But at this time, the general consensus is that they both play an important role in human development. What if we applied this same concept, that both nature and nurture affect development, not only to psychology, but also to genetics? This is where epigenetics, defined as the study of changes in addition to those in genetic sequence (both influence gene expression), comes into the picture. The genetic code is the basis of the “nature” portion of the main idea, and epigenetics suggests that experiences and “nurture” affect the expression of these genes. This revolutionary paradigm, that genes are not set in stone and can be altered through experiences, is the central idea of epigenetics. These experiences could be lifestyle changes, biological events, or chemical exposures that cause changes within the body.
Epigenetic changes are defined as anything that changes gene activity without actually changing the DNA sequence. Certain experiences, habits, and lifestyle choices have been found to help prevent diseases, like cancer. They do this by causing a multitude of favorable physical and chemical changes that alter gene expression by promoting helpful genes. Epigenetic changes affect the makeup of the epigenome, as they are unique to each individual and their experiences. The uniqueness of each person’s epigenome is called their “epigenetic signature”.