The X-Files of DNA: Epigenetics

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By Nicole Garneau, PhD

I decided, as a sophomore in high school (see image below), to go into genetics because it was fascinating, it had to do with humans, and it was NEW. The last point being the most important- it was new and not well understood, which meant adults didn't actually know everything and therefore I could be a part of a new discovery.

BabyNicole

It is with this same enthusiasm, that I bring you epigenetics. It is fascinating, it has to do with humans, and scientists have no idea about the wonders they will discover as they dive deeper into this new field of study.

With that said, I'll be the first to admit that I find epigenetics daunting, and I often struggle in explain it our volunteers in Expedition Health here at the Museum. This can be frustrating, I'm a geneticist who can't properly explain epigenetics. The reason I'm sharing this ego-shattering point-- because I'm not alone. A sigh of relief escaped my lips yesterday morning as I watched the worlds leading scientists in the field of genetics describe in epigenetics in a range of ways, openly discussing scientists do not agree on what exactly epigenetics is.

In addition though- I also found myself nodding and murmuring "ahh", "that makes sense" and other expressions of affirmation, because while epigenetics is still elusive, the culmination of their thoughtful responses at least gave me the courage to write this:

Epigenetics is beyond the sequence of the DNA, it allows for your cells to begin expressing a trait, or stop expressing a trait, without any change to the order of nucleotides in your DNA.

What this will mean mechanistically within the cell, scientists have only begun to touch on, but it's got my attention and I'm looking forward to learning more. If you'd like to learn more, this week's issue of Science dives head first into epigenetics, and kicks it off with the video I elude to above, which can be found here: http://videolab.sciencemag.org/Featured/650920373001/1

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