Over the decades, scientific research has tirelessly focused on the study of genes and DNA, thus revealing a biological universe as complex as it is fascinating. However, another emerging scientific field is now tending to change our understanding of genetics: epigenetics. This revolutionary discipline invites us to rethink the way our genetic heritage interacts with our environment and our lifestyle. Results which raise as many promising avenues as questions. But then, can our daily choices and our lifestyle really cause changes to our DNA ?
How does epigenetics work?
Epigenetics is a discipline of biology that explores how genetic information in our cells can be turned on or off, without altering the DNA sequence. This means that although every cell in the body has the same basic DNA, they can develop different characteristics depending on their environment and history. Unlike mutations that permanently alter the DNA sequence, epigenetic modifications can be reversible.
It should be noted that genetics and epigenetics, although closely related, are two distinct fields. Genetics focuses on genes and their DNA sequence, while epigenetics studies how chemical marks on DNA and histones can modulate gene expression without changing their sequence. Both areas are important for understanding how biological traits are transmitted and regulated, and how environmental factors can influence our health and well-being.
What factors can influence our genes?
Epigenetic modifications originate from the influence of the environment on our genetic material. Indeed, our body is constantly exposed to a variety of signals and environmental factors that can impact the way our genes are expressed. These signals come from our external environment, our lifestyle and our behaviors.
For example, our diet, exposure to cigarette smoke, stress levels, and other similar factors can all send signals to our cells, informing them about environmental conditions. In response to these signals, our cells can change their behavior by adjusting gene expression, that is, by deciding which genes should be activated and which should be repressed. These epigenetic modifications are essential for allowing our cells to adapt to the changing needs of our body. Our lifestyle choices and our environment therefore have the capacity to trigger epigenetic modifications that have a significant influence on our health.
Twins are a striking example of the effects of epigenetic modifications. Indeed, even if identical twins share the same DNA sequence, different environmental factors can lead to distinct epigenetic changes between the two twins over time. This can lead to differences in gene expression and ultimately different traits and characteristics despite their similar genetic background.
Impact on health
The complete understanding of epigenetic modifications within a genome is of crucial importance to better understand their role in human pathologies. Thus, research has established that epigenetic abnormalities are key aspects in the development of various diseases. These anomalies can also be associated with hereditary syndromes. Research also looks at complex diseases such as neurodegenerative and metabolic disorders.
Advances in this scientific field have thus made it possible to highlight the role of epigenetic alterations in the development of various conditions, including cancer, metabolic syndrome, Alzheimer's disease, schizophrenia, asthma and autism. For example, studies have shown that epigenetic alterations play a major role in the process of cancer formation by modifying the expression of key genes, in addition to genetic mutations.
Researchers are also interested in epigenetic modifications such as biomarkers, thus allowing the detection and distinction of different types of cancer, in addition to the genetic mutations traditionally studied. These advances open promising perspectives for a better understanding of the mechanisms underlying diseases and for the development of new diagnostic and therapeutic approaches.
Epigenetics opens up exciting new perspectives in preventive medicine. Understanding how our lifestyle can influence our epigenetic modifications allows us to take steps to maintain our health. For example, a balanced diet, regular exercise and stress management can promote positive epigenetic changes that reduce the risks of chronic diseases such as cancer, cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Epigenetic mechanisms are reversible, which makes them promising for preventive actions as well as drug development.
Epigenetics research indeed offers promising prospects for the development of new medical therapies . For example, treatments known as “epi drugs” are being developed. These aim to specifically target epigenetic modifications associated with various diseases, thus representing an innovative therapeutic approach. Although existing molecules still lack precision in their action, many epidrugs are currently under development. By combining these epidrugs with other therapeutic approaches, it becomes possible to maximize clinical benefits while reducing potential side effects. These advances open up promising perspectives for the future of medicine and the fight against a wide range of pathologies.
In short , epigenetics is a growing field that is revolutionizing our understanding of genetics and how our lifestyle can influence our health. It thus highlights the importance of taking care of our well-being through healthy lifestyle choices and can pave the way for revolutionary new medical approaches. Research in epigenetics continues, particularly in order to further explore the mysteries of this science and to use this knowledge to improve everyone's quality of life.
Inserm. (August 18, 2017). Epigenetics. A genome, full of possibilities!
Curie Institute. (March 23, 2017). Epigenetics: beyond genes .
Cederroth, C., R., Vassalli, J., Nef, S. (2007). On epigenetics and development. Rev Med Switzerland.