The discussion PZ and I had a couple of weeks ago sparked a lot of fun questions from viewers/readers. PZ covered a TON of the basics last week, so I figured I better step up to explain my view of epigenetics!
Epigenetics is inherited. Take agouti mice, for an example. If you alter how much folic acid a female mouse eats, you alter the epigenetic profiles of her grandpups. Folic acid starts off a chain reaction that leads to methlyation (silencing) of DNA, leading to different fur colors due to differential ‘silencing’ of a retroviral promoter and the ‘agouti’ gene.
No matter how much folic acid you feed those pups, their coats will not change color.
But that doesnt mean all epigenetic effects are carved into stone at birth!
Know how you always read those crappy AP articles about how broccoli has these magic anti-cancer properties? Its not magic. Its just (partially) epigenetics!
Broccoli has a compound in it called sulforaphane. Sulforaphane inhibits histone deacetylase (HDAC), which leads to the derepression of genes cancer cells turn off. Specifically, p21 and bax, the genes that say “STOP MULTIPLYING!!” and “DIE!!”– messages cancer cells dont want to hear.
Unlike folic acid–>fur color, sulforaphane–>HDAC can be altered via diet. If you eat a cup of broccolli sprouts, about 3 hours later there is a decrease in HDAC activity ~equal to drugs we give cancer patients.
The epigenetic research Im involved with is very similar, except with a different epigenetic modification and the activation of ERVs. Until we publish more, I really hesitate to blog much about it, because Im certain the woo-crew will have a field day. Im sure the same thoughts have already occurred to you all “U DONT NEED CHEMO U JUTS NEEDZ ORGANIK BROCCOLLIZ AND VITAMIN C AND MAGNETS 2 CURE CANSER!”
Thats not how it works, but it is part of a broader idea that cancer is not just caused by mutations in DNA or aneuploidy, but could also be caused/perpetuated by epigenetic screw ups. So you should eat your veggies. But dont ‘cure’ your cancer with veggies, okay? Promise?