Epigenetics Simplified

By Dr. Jeannie Thomason

Have you heard of epigenetics?  Maybe you have not wanted to take the time to delve into what seems like a complicated subject.  I hope not.  As an animal naturopath and natural rearing dog breeder of over 25 years,  I have found the study of epigenetics over the past few years to be so amazing and important for us to know about that I wanted to share my take on “epigenetics simplified”.

Epigenetics – the word itself means: Epi – above, on top of – genetics.

Many people still think that genes fixed in place and can’t really be altered but genes can switch on and off or express themselves very differently depending on environmental influences. Thus, the same gene can express itself as a negative trait or a positive trait, depending on environmental input, especially very early in life and then on through out life.  Epigenetics, is simply, the study of biological mechanisms that will switch genes on and off.

As far as we know, there are different arrays of over 25,000 genes code for the more than 100,000 proteins that make up the material of life.

Let me start with just a little education on biochemistry and genetics to help simplify a little more.  Please stay with me just a little longer.  This is not at all boring as it may sound to you but rather facinating and amazing. Which you will see as I continue this mini series.

Here we go:

Cells are fundamental working units of every life form. All the instructions required to direct their activities are contained within the chemical deoxyribonucleic acid, also known as DNA.

DNA is made up of approximately 3 billion nucleotide bases. There are four fundamental types of bases that comprise DNA – adenine, cytosine, guanine, and thymine, commonly abbreviated as A, C, G, and T, respectively.
The sequence, or the order, of the bases is what determines the life instructions.  Interestingly enough, the dog’s DNA sequence is nearly excatly to that of a wolf. Only a fraction of distinctively different sequences makes them “dogs”. DNA gives the instructions for various functional proteins to be produced inside the cell.

Genes are specific sequences of bases that provide instructions on how to make important proteins – complex molecules that trigger various biological actions to carry out life functions.

Epigenetics affect how genes are read by cells, and subsequently whether the cells should produce relevant proteinsis what determines a cell’s specialization (e.g., skin cell, blood cell, hair cell, liver cells, etc.) as a fetus develops into a puppy through gene expression (active) or silencing (dormant); and  nurture: environmental stimuli can also cause genes to be turned off or turned on.

I love this analogy of epigenetics was writen about epigenetics in humans and was presented in the book “Epigenetics Revolution” by Nessa Carey:

“Think of the human lifespan as a very long movie. The cells would be the actors and actresses, essential units that make up the movie. DNA, in turn, would be the script — instructions for all the participants of the movie to perform their roles. Subsequently, the DNA sequence would be the words on the script, and certain blocks of these words that instruct key actions or events to take place would be the genes. The concept of genetics would be like screenwriting. Follow the analogy so far? Great. The concept of epigenetics, then, would be like directing. The script can be the same, but the director can choose to eliminate or tweak certain scenes or dialogue, altering the movie for better or worse. After all, Steven Spielberg’s finished product would be drastically different than Woody Allen’s for the same movie script, wouldn’t it?”

Can you see how the knowledge of epigentics applies to dogs (and cats, horses, etc.? – all of living things)

If you have stumbled on to this article and you want to know more about this facinating topic of epigenetics, you may want to read part 2 – Epigenetics in Dogs

Keep an eye out for part 3 in the next couple of weeks.  🙂

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