In a ground-breaking experiment, Randy Jirtle began with pairs of fat yellow mice known as agouti mice. So called because they carry a particular gene – the agouti gene -making the rodents ravenous and prone to cancer and diabetes. Most of their offspring are identical to their parents. However, by feeding the mother mice a diet rich in methyl donors, small chemical clusters that can attach to a gene and turn it off – starting just before conception – the babies were born lean, with no predisposition toward cancer or diabetes. These methyl molecules are common in the environment and are found in may foods including onion, garlic, beets, and in food supplements often given to pregnant women.
After being consumed by the mothers, the methyl donors worked their way into the developing embryos’ chromosomes and onto the critical agouti gene. The mothers passed along the agouti gene to the children, but thanks to the methyl-rich pregnancy diet, they added to the gene a chemical switch that dimmed the gene’s deleterious effects. A subtle nutritional change in the pregnant mother rat had a dramatic impact on the gene expression of the baby!
The science lies in the fact that while genes pass down traits, genes themselves need instructions for what to do, and where and when to do it. These instructions are found not in the letters of the DNA itself, but in an array of chemical markers know collectedly as the epigenome. The epigenic switches and markers help switch on or off the expression of particular genes.
Fact: the epigenome is just as critical as the DNA to the healthy development of organisms, human included. Epigenic signals can be passed on from one generation to the next, sometimes for several generations, without changing a single genes sequence. What is eye-opening is a growing body of evidence suggesting that the epigenic changes wrought by one’s diet, behavior, and surrounding can echo far into the future. Put simply, what you eat today can affect the health and behavior of your great -grandchildren.
The commonly held belief is that through our DNA we are destined to have a particular body shape, personate and disease. Some scholars even contend that the genetic code predetermines intelligence and is the root cause of many social ills, including poverty, crime, and violence. Gene as fate had become conventional wisdom. But through the study of epigenic, that notion at last may be proved outdated. Epigenics introduces the concept of free will into our idea of genetics. People used to think that once your epigenic code was laid down in early development that was it for life. To be clear:cancer is not genetic, it is epigenic. Common signaling pathways known to lead to cancerous tumors also activate DNA-methylation machinery – if you eat the right foods and control your environment – knocking out one of the enzymes in that pathway prevents the tumors from developing.
People can maintain the integrity of the epigenome through diet. Lifelong methylation diets may be the key to staying healthy. Two key dietary compounds have already been found: EGCG in green tea, and genistein in soy.

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