Can epigenetics help us control our genes?
Like most mammals, human beings aren’t born with an individualized instructions for care manual. As a species studying itself, we’ve come to know an incredible amount about how our bodies and minds work—but we’re still making new discoveries every day in genetics and the human microbiome.
Matt Riemann, founder of the Ultimate Human Foundation, a nonprofit organization devoted to transforming world health, believes we’re on the forefront of a personalized health revolution. While it’s now apparent that the one-size-fits-all standards favored in models of nutrition and Recommended Daily Allowances are insufficient for a species so varied in size, shape and genetics, Reimann takes the sentiment to a more radical extreme: “You can actually control the way your genes are expressed, and that will determine who you are right now,” he says.
Speaking in an impassioned, clipped Australian accent, the 30-something Riemann explains the emerging buzzword “epigenetics”: anything that acts on or outside of your genes to influence their expression. “So you think of all those genes like light switches you can flip on and off, the epigenetic factors are things that either make them switch on or off,” he says. Those factors include the foods you eat, exercise, stress, and the climate you live in.
Everybody has heard of the person who smoked and drank every day and lived to be 100, says Reimann, and many of us have known someone in their early 30s who is fit and active, but gets breast cancer.
“How does that work? How is that fair? We’re really trying to help people understand that everything makes a difference to the way that your genes are expressed, and everything can affect your having cancer or not having cancer.”
In 2007, Riemann, an avid surfer, biker and otherwise healthy young man, was diagnosed with familial amyloid polyneuropathy, a neurodegenerative and autoimmune disease triggered by a mutation of the TTR gene—a condition that left him in extreme pain, and with an estimated 10 years left to live. Empowered by the notion that his lifestyle and environment could help suppress his illness, Riemann began a ceaseless investigation of epigenetics. He moved to a warmer climate, and drastically changed his diet.
“For me to have a lot of protein in my diet, because I was working out and doing what I was doing, meant that that excess protein would float around my body and calcify and end up in my spine, which is where I ended up having a lot of my intensive pain,” he says. He also nixed sugar, certain vegetables like Brussels sprouts, and changed his exercise routine. Riemann can’t change his genetic mutation, but he’s been able to lead an active life that is nearly symptom free, defying the trajectory of his illness, which predicted he’d be in a wheelchair by now.
Just a few months ago, Riemann launched ph360.me, an online platform that calculates personalized recommendations by considering epigenetic influences on each user’s current state of health. The platform is the result of 10 years of research and collaboration with international researchers and progressive genomics companies like Pathway Genomics. It doesn’t sequence the gene or mutation, but measures a person’s phenotype—the current expression of their genes—based on ancestry, lifestyle, and actual physical characteristics, from eye, skin and hair color to length of bones.
“We’re going to see a huge shift from a focus on the genotype toward a focus on the phenotype in the next few years,” says Riemann. “Right now it’s like a buzzword. In five years [epigenetics] will be commonplace, and we’ll be questioning a lot of the genomics, and saying well, how is that relevant, unless we know how it’s expressed? Unless we look at the epigenetic factors that influence it, why do we care, because we can look at the factors that control it and change it in the future.”
He’s equally excited about the future of technology as a tool for personalized health, in the form of smart toilets that read one’s flora, smart refrigerators, contact lenses that read blood sugar levels for diabetics, and 3D printers that can plant new organs inside the human body. MG
Matt Riemann will teach a course on “The Future of Personalized Health, Epigenetics and Advanced Functional Medicine” at Five Branches University on Oct. 25-27. For more information, see https://advancedfunctionalmedicine.eventbrite.com. PHOTO: Matt Riemann has developed an online platform that attempts to provide personalized health insights for each user, using epigenetics.
UCSC scientists use worms to track epigenetic markers
Your DNA is a blueprint for you; its information determines everything from what your body looks like to which diseases you may be predisposed to contract. But your genetic code isn’t read verbatim. Gene expression can be influenced not just by altering DNA, but also by altering the molecular machines that package, read and transcribe it, as well as some environmental influences. That phenomenon forms the basis of epigenetics.
Epigenetics is a young field. Over the past few years, scientists have teased out various clues about how gene expression is influenced by things other than gene sequence. One way that happens is by modifying histones, the protein structures that package DNA. If you modify a histone by adding a chemical group to it, its function changes. Scientists have known about this for a while. But no one had shown whether or not those histone changes could pass from parent cell to embryo and recur through cell division.
Last week, researchers from UCSC and Indiana University, Bloomington, did just that.
“There is an across-generation passage of histone marks from parent to embryo,” said UCSC professor of molecular, cellular and developmental biology Susan Strome, who co-authored the study, which was published last week in the journal Science. “You can actually see histone marks being passed through division,” said Strome, “And the marks are staying on the same chromosomes they came in on.” Graduate student Laura Gaydos, who has since begun her postdoctoral research at Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, led the study.
The project was simple; take some worms, tag a specifically modified histone, breed them with unmodified worms, and watch their genetic information travel from one cell generation to the next. The modified histone in this study resulted in gene repression. The researchers found that as a cell divided to produce two, the histone marks were replicated too. It didn’t matter if the marked histones came from an egg or sperm cell; the pattern of marked vs. unmarked histones persisted through subsequent generations.
The exact mechanism by which histone marks are remembered remains a mystery, but Strome intends to look there next. The study holds important implications, as many organisms use the same marker to repress genes. BB