Epigenetics: The Real Reason You Are Who You Are

You share 99.5% of your DNA with the person sitting next to you. In fact, you share 97.5% of your DNA with mice. And, believe it or not, 50% of banana DNA is identical to yours! So what makes you so special? Epigenetics.

The New Plastics

Remember the scene in “The Graduate” when the smug, older businessman takes aside the newly minted, baby faced, college grad Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) at a party and says: “I just want to say one word to you — just one word — ‘plastics.’” Well, epigenetics is the new plastics. The belief that the genome you inherit from your mother and father is faithfully perpetuated in you is not true anymore. DNA is not your destiny, epigenetics is.
Epigenetics is the non-genetic variation that we see all around us. Even within our own bodies, it explains how different cells, although all having identical DNA, can perform very different tasks, and maintain those tasks for as long as we live. It is why a nose is a nose and why an ear is an ear. Pretty powerful stuff, and stuff that we are just now realizing.

A Genetic Light Switch

Broadly defined, epigenetics includes any process that alters gene activity without changing the DNA sequence. Not only that, epigenetic alterations to DNA are heritable and can be passed to offspring. This little fact makes epigenetics critical to that long, windy road that got us here, also termed evolution.
Several kinds of epigenetic changes to DNA have been described, including methylation, acetylation and other “-ations,” but in general, they serve to “mark” areas of DNA so that affected genes either become active or stay quiet. These marks are both natural and essential to life, but they can also go awry and lead to adverse behavioral and health effects, like cancer, autoimmunity, schizophrenia and autism.

Filling the Gaps of Infertility

Technology can now examine epigenetic marks on DNA on a grand scale, and what’s being learned from such work is fascinating. Take male infertility for example. Most of it is currently unexplained. But epigenomewide studies now suggest that epigenetic patterns in sperm can predict your ability to be a father, both naturally and with the help of assisted reproduction. This has led biotech companies like Episona* to devote their entire existence to figuring out the epigenetic links to fertility. Even more intriguing is the thought that, given the heritability of things, that maybe male infertility is not just about what you’re doing in your life, but also about what your parents’ did in theirs. OK, I’ll stop with the “what’s-beyond-the-universe” thinking, and just leave you with the notion that this epigenetics thing is big in medicine right now, clearly emerging as a ghost-like, parallel universe to the Watson-and-Crick-conceived world of DNA.
*Dr. Turek is an advisor to Episona.

8 thoughts on “Epigenetics: The Real Reason You Are Who You Are

  1. Dear Dr. Turek,
    Great information. Is epigenetics expediting the process for the artificial testicale research? If so, do you mind sharing how so?

    1. Dear Gary, great question! Its not really expediting the process but certainly the man made sperm generated within the artificial testis can be tested for its epigenetic profile to make sure that it is just like normal sperm.

  2. I really appreciate your efforts, for such a valuable information. Now a days Infertility is becoming a common problem with the way of Living life style.
    I’m expecting some more articles from Mr.Paul Turek

    1. Dear R. Smith, GREAT QUESTION! We are not sure exactly how and if the SEED test overlaps DNA fragmentation. Too early to know. HOWEVER, I will predict that the SEED will more accurately predict who will fail to conceive naturally, who will fail IUI and IVF/ICSI and who will miscarry than the DNA Fragmentation rate ever will.

  3. Dr. Turek, your blog is very informative, thank you. Where is the Episona website? It’s no longer listed at the link you provided. And can IVF clinics do epigenetic tests for sperm quality along with DNA fragmentation tests? How is the epigenetic landscape altered in men with cryptozoospermia related to adolescent chemo + radiation therapy? If they find a few good sperm, how do we know they are really OK?

    1. Dear Lola, The Episona Seed Assay for sperm epigenetics is, ruefully, now defunct. The business model failed as the costs to do the tests were too high. HOWEVER, stay tuned! Another company will take another crack at this.. the science is far too good to go away.

      We have no idea how cancer treatment alters sperm epigenetics. However we have 70 years of births, both natural and assisted, from cancer survivors and the kids are OK. We don’t know if “a few good sperm” are “really OK” but the quality control that nature inserts into what we do in the lab is extraordinarily high!

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