HuffPo lulz

If there is one thing that terrifies me as a blogger, its noticing site-hits from HuffPo.

It means one of two things--
1-- They stole some of your content
2-- One of their kook 'writers' linked to you, and a shitstorm of crazy is about to invade

Yeah... I noticed some hits from HuffPo yesterday...

I stopped everything I was doing to investigate, and it turns out things were a lot funnier than I was anticipating.

Some random weirdos wrote a post on meditation, and included this stupid bit:

Recent developments in the biological sciences indicate that environmental influences can alter a newly recognized layer of genomic control called the epigenome. And some epigenetic changes have even been shown to persist across generational boundaries. Until recently, this was thought to be impossible. Extrapolating this notion, we might speculate that the benefits resulting from meditative practices could conceivably be passed on to future generations.

Yeah, random weirdos. Meditating is liek TOTALLY 'epigenetics', so it will liek TOTALLY 'benefit' future generations.



Turns out HuffPos 'Around the Web' widget linked to my post: 'Epigenetics is not magic'




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Epigenetics. You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means. I realize I overuse that little joke, but I can't help but think that virtually every time I see advocates of so-called "complementary and alternative medicine" (CAM) or, as it's known more commonly now, "…

If they're talking about enlightenment then this is clearly rubbish (hereditary dharma? Isn't that a bit brahministic for them?)

But if meditation has a positive effect on stress levels and their associated biochemistry, it seems Not Obviously Wrong that this could persist across generations. But I really don't have the science skillz to know for sure. Anyone able to tell me why I'm wrong?

By Corkscrew (not verified) on 01 Jul 2011 #permalink

... Abbie, erv-the-blog is now sentient enough to seduce other web-widgets for treacherous, and strike first. For the love of humankind, please do not induce it to go all Hactar on us. I fear we might lose.

Extrapolating this notion, we might speculate that the benefits resulting from meditative practices could conceivably be passed on to future generations.

And that's exactly how sci-fi works!

There's some evidence of germline transmission of DNA methylation states (e.g., obesity research). That's new and exciting and inconclusive. But that's a far leap from entertaining the notion that my hippy mom's dabbling in meditation in the 60s predisposes her grandchildren to mindfulness.

I am familiar with this meditation research and with this researcher and some of the people they work with. They are serious researchers doing good work. It turns out that in their other work they have shown that this type of mindfulness meditation is associated with nitric oxide production.

I am quite sure that the physiological effects of meditation are associated with the neurogenic production of nitric oxide by meditation.

I am quite sure that I can do with my nitric oxide producing bacteria some of what meditation can do, but without meditating.

But the only thing that epigenetic programming can do is what evolution has already configured it to do. Epigenetic programming is not magic or teleogenic. You can't program your epigenome by willing it to be programmed a certain way. If you practice stress reduction, then your germ cells will tend to epigenetically program themselves to produce the low stress human phenotype. If you subject yourself to high stress, then your germ cells will tend to epigenetically program themselves to produce the high stress human phenotype. I think that epigenetic programming is regulated by NO and its effects on methylation through the folate pathway (and other pathways too).

Low NO is the archetypal stress response. Stress relief is equivalent to raising your nitric oxide level. Raising your NO level is the same as stress relief.

Not all types of meditation are equal. The Kundalini kindling is (I think) the opposite of the good kind and is a technique for triggering the âfight or flight stateâ (my hypothesis) and is a low NO state. The type of meditation discussed by Lazar et al is the type (mindfulness) that the Dali Lama practices and can be thought of as a mental state of extreme beneficence, and is the opposite of the âfight or flightâ state.

Being a lying, cheating, angry, hurting, torturing asshole (what the Buddhists call âsufferingâ) is incompatible with having a high NO level. I think that is where karma comes from, it is the long term effects of high NO or low NO on your own and your descendants epigenetic programming. For example PTSD and the cycle of violence.

Just to scare the shit out of everyone.

I think it is the epigenetic programming of germ cells that causes the final population crash in this research.

If the environment becomes stressful enough, the germ cells become epigenetically programmed to produce such an extreme stress phenotype that offspring are unable to reproduce. All stresses add together and if the sum gets too high your population is SOL.

Aw, I thought the article would include a link to 'homologous recombination tiniker'

By dexitroboper (not verified) on 01 Jul 2011 #permalink

Hmm. Speaking of 'random weirdos', it appears one of them is posting in this thread.

By frank habets (not verified) on 01 Jul 2011 #permalink

Leave daedalus alone!

homologous recombination tiniker --- I lol'd.

By Anonymous (not verified) on 01 Jul 2011 #permalink

Hey ERV -- I wrote a post Thurs night including links to your "Epigenetics is not magic" post and a couple of the others in that "Around the Web" sampling. That might've triggered it, but it's a little disappointing our newish blog didn't show up. :(
(Sorry for the self-promotion.)
But whatevs. I thought your comments on the meisters of woo were hilarious, and very few folks have said much about wooville's sudden interest in epigenetics, which I find perplexing.

Since this comment is more relevant here than on the original post:

When I spoke at the TX Freethought Convention, I probably said something a bit too casual about epigenetics. A speaker later in the day, Michael Newdow, took issue with that phrase. So he came up to me after my talk and said flatly "I want to use something you said as evidence of how even scientists can be woo-y when it comes to medicine."

Could you explain what the slip was and how it related to woo?

By Anonymous (not verified) on 02 Jul 2011 #permalink

Anon-- I have forgotten all of the details :) BUT I think it was something I said too casually about diet and epigenetics. I did not emphasize that in the absence of a gross nutrient deficiency, supplementing the nutrients that effect epigenetics probably doesnt do much. In mouse models, they are totally starved of certain nutrients-- humans are rarely starved like that in real life. Though I would argue that in particular cases, like chemo/radiation for cancer, it would be important to supplement certain things in the face of little appetite and extreme nausea.

By not emphasizing that, I could see where he got the idea I thought that eating certain foods would alter your gene expression/prevent diseases, eg "If you eat cauliflower you wont get cancer!", aka woo.

HOWEVER, I also argued that you can also get similar effects to epigenetics modifying drugs with certain foods, BUT, if you dont have any problems (ie need drugs) doesnt really matter.

Do you know what 'stress' means to a biologist, mo?

Hint: Its not what you think it means. Which you would know if you read the paper you just linked to.

Or are you suggesting cells can 'meditate' their way out of osmotic or heat shock?

Or do you think by 'osmotic' and 'heat' stress, the authors really meant they stressed out the cells by making them sit in rush hour LA traffic and foreclosed on their little cell homes?

I had not loved a blog post so much, in a long time, hahahahahaha. This is so fantastic.

By Lotharloo (not verified) on 03 Jul 2011 #permalink

Yeah, I'm a biologist too.

And physical stresses are easy to produce experimentally, while popular-term stress is not, and not as well defined. How do you trivial-stress drosophila? Tickling them? I'm not aware anyone ever tried to "stress" them.
So heat shock stress is it, or hunger stress, radiation stress, what ever. It's just a model system, and if you can't replicate the human hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, you take the next best experimental conditions. Trivial stress also has various physiological effects, like cellular stress and protein expression stress in various tissues (In parts thanks to epigenetics. Like, that DNA-methylation, Histone modification, ncRNA and HSP90 stuff. yes really.)

So let me ask you the reciprocal question to your bunch:

After you read the above paper, can you be sure that if you conducted such a transgenerational physical stress experiment with humans, you wouldn't see a heritable effect?

I just linked a recent Cell publication, because I assumed you would be familiar with it. Fortunately for my argument, the present literature is filling with examples of inherited epigenetic conditions.
Here for example, stress is epigenetically inherited (with DNA methylation involved) without the involvement of the germ line:

Champagne, F. A. & Meaney, M. J. Stress during gestation alters postpartum maternal care and the development of the offspring in a rodent model. Biol. Psychiatry 59, 1227â1235 (2006).

Champagne, F. A. et al. Maternal care associated with methylation of the estrogen receptor-α 1b promoter and estrogen receptor-α expression in the medial preoptic area of female offspring. Endocrinol. 147, 2909â2915 (2006).

Champagne, F. A. & Meaney, M. J. Transgenerational effects of social environment on variations in maternal care and behavioural response to novelty. Behav. Neurosci. 121, 1353â1363 (2007).

Champagne, F. A. Epigenetic mechanisms and the transgenerational effects of maternal care. Front. Neuroendocrinol. 29, 386â397 (2008).

Hey, look at that! This group published >4 papers on this subject! And they even "popular-sense-stressed" their rodents.

This is also cool:

Murgatroyd, C. et al., 2010. Genes learn from stress: How infantile trauma programs us for depression. Epigenetics, 5(3), pp.194-199.

I really like your posts on virology, but please stop your posts which are misrepresenting epigenetics. Get a clue on the literature. Here is a Nature Review Genetics on non-genetic inheritance:

Forgot the first paper of the group:

Weaver, I.C.G. et al., 2004. Epigenetic programming by maternal behavior. Nat Neurosci, 7(8), pp.847-854.

mo, "stress" is not and cannot be inherited, Mendelian, genetic, epigenetic, or otherwise. A susceptibility to stress might be inherited, a certain stress response might be inherited, or the lack of a certain stress response might be inherited.

âStressâ is an environmental effect. It cannot be inherited. Environmental effects cannot be inherited, they can only be caused by exposure in an environment.

Stress will cause epigenetic programming if and only if there are physiological mechanisms that transduce that stress into epigenetic modifications of DNA (and perhaps other things).

There will only be physiological mechanisms to transduce specific physiological stressors into epigenetic programming if organisms evolved to have those physiological mechanisms to transduce those specific stressors into epigenetic programming.

None of those papers you link to says otherwise. None of them suggest that epigenetics is like some genomic form of âThe Secretâ as it is portrayed in the HuffPo, where meditating about what you want your offspring to be like will program your germ cells to produce offspring like that. There is no science to suggest as they do that epigenetics constitutes âevolution on demandâ. There are people who think and write sloppy articles that suggest that epigenetics somehow does make evolution teleological.

Evolution is not teleological, and no amount of wishful thinking or sloppy thinking, or non-thinking will make it so. People who think they see teleology in evolution need to check and double check, and triple check, and quadruple check until they find their error. That is hard to do because many people really, really, really, really want the universe to be teleological.

The authors wrote the HuffPo piece to pimp their fictional novel, The Shroud. They are not scientists trying to advance the science of epigenetics, they are non-scientists trying to increase sales of their fictional book.

Are you fucking kidding us mo? Or are you just trolling for attention, by yelling, "I'm a biologist too!!!"

Because as far as I can see this

Atf1, the fission yeast homolog of activation transcription factor-2 (ATF-2), contributes to heterochromatin formation. However, the role of ATF-2 in chromatin assembly in higher organisms remains unknown. This study reveals that Drosophila ATF-2 (dATF-2) is required for heterochromatin assembly, whereas the stress-induced phosphorylation of dATF-2, via Mekk1-p38, disrupts heterochromatin. The dATF-2 protein colocalized with HP1, not only on heterochromatin but also at specific loci in euchromatin. Heat shock or osmotic stress induced phosphorylation of dATF-2 and resulted in its release from heterochromatin. This heterochromatic disruption was an epigenetic event that was transmitted to the next generation in a non-Mendelian fashion. When embryos were exposed to heat stress over multiple generations, the defective chromatin state was maintained over multiple successive generations, though it gradually returned to the normal state. The results suggest a mechanism by which the effects of stress are inherited epigenetically via the regulation of a tight chromatin structure.

has nothing to do with this

But we can jumpstart evolution and leverage it on our own terms. We can literally rewire our brains toward greater compassion and cooperation. As always--it begins with the individual....Recent developments in the biological sciences indicate that environmental influences can alter a newly recognized layer of genomic control called the epigenome. And some epigenetic changes have even been shown to persist across generational boundaries. Until recently, this was thought to be impossible. Extrapolating this notion, we might speculate that the benefits resulting from meditative practices could conceivably be passed on to future generations.

By Lotharloo (not verified) on 03 Jul 2011 #permalink