Epigenetics

Several weeks ago, a new magazine appeared in my waiting room. It is called GENOME. It is also available online at genomemag.com. It is an interesting science magazine written for the general public and it features articles about genetics and cutting edge medicine. Just the ads from various cancer labs and hospitals will blow your mind. The Fall 2015 issue features an article entitled, Traces of the Past, concerning the emerging field of epigenetics. Epigenetics refers to molecular processes that leave durable marks on our DNA, altering the gene’s functioning independent of the DNA sequence.  If our genes are the instructions, then the epigenome is the punctuation. Some have likened the epigenome to software and the genome to computer hardware.

The article mentions several studies meant to explore this new area of study. One study reported on a longitudinal study of survivors of the months long starvation of the Dutch by the Nazis during WWII. Those who were conceived during the famine showed elevated rates of obesity, cardiovascular disease, elevated cholesterol, diabetes, schizophrenia and accelerated aging as adults as compared to those born before or after the famine. Epigenetic influences in utero may have programmed these individuals for a variety of disease earlier in life. Another study suggests that children of mothers who experienced post-traumatic stress disorder from the Holocaust inherited a heightened stress response. The same results were found in children of mothers who were pregnant during the 1998 massive ice storm in Quebec, Canada.  Another study trained mice to link a mild electrical foot shock to the scent of cherry blossoms and found that the offspring of the next 2 generations showed signs of an inherited sensitivity to cherry blossoms.

So, it seems that what we learned in high school biology is not exactly true. Acquired characteristics can be passed down but not directly through our genes but indirectly through the interaction of the internal and external environment on the epigenetic molecular influence of genetic expression. The formal study of genetics began with Augustinian friar Gregory Johann Mendel’s study of pea plants in 1866. Samuel Hahnemann, announced his discovery of homeopathy in 1796 and published his first book on the subject in 1811.  By 1835 he published a second work on chronic diseases. Hahnemann had noted patterns of susceptibility to various disease which he called miasms and his followers refined that concept when they began to see these patterns transmitted from one generation to the next. Subsequently, homeopaths began to treat these tendencies to improve the health of their patients in each generation. I believe that what Hahnemann discovered 31 years before Mendel’s published work was the epigenetic influence of acquired diseases (mostly infections) on subsequent generations and the means to favorably alter that influence homeopathically. Perhaps someday there will be funding and technology that can show that homeopathy can do precisely that!