Sunday, July 6, 2014

The Curious Tale of Epigenetics

My blog article today is a bit off of the beaten path for me.

Instead of looking at a software topic, today's blog article topic is more biological: epigenetics.

I'll confess up front that I'm not a biologist and never took a genetics course in my life. Close as I got to such a course was I had friends in college who took the genetics course and they sweated through worrying about the progress of their cohort of cross-bred fruit flies. And I did work my way through Prof Keeton's Biology 101 course and its Biology 102 sequel. And when my wife was pregnant, when the pregnancy had gotten far enough along we had a sonogram and amniocentesis to make sure all was as well as could be gauged at that time. That's the full extent of my background in genetics. If I'd actually studied the topic in further depth, I suspect I'd now be having one of those "Everything You Know is Wrong" moments.

This article that I read this week is what brings all this up:

Grandma's Experiences Leave a Mark on Your Genes (May 2013, but talking about a discovery that dates back to a couple of guys having beers in a bar in 1992).

I think my favorite part of the article is on page 3, after the researchers had made their outlandish sounding hypothesis and carefully ran 3 different experiments to confirm that they were right and wrote the results up in a paper only to have the paper rejected:

Despite such seemingly overwhelming evidence, when the pair wrote it all up in a paper, one of the reviewers at a top science journal refused to believe it, stating he had never before seen evidence that a mother’s behavior could cause epigenetic change.

“Of course he hadn’t,” Szyf says. “We wouldn’t have bothered to report the study if it had already been proved.”

But there's a happy ending. The paper was published in the June 2004 issue of Nature Neuroscience and here, just about 10 years later, the news has actually caught my attention. Maybe next blog article I'll talk about a Princeton physicist who suggests that E=MC2. :-)

The one thing that bothers me in the linked article about epigenetics is I see nothing that discusses the effects of the mother's contribution to the genes vs. the father's contribution to the genes. Presumably the methyl groups from Mom are not in the exact same places as the ones from Dad. How do the resulting gene pairs interact? Maybe if I dug enough to find the answer to that, I'd lose my amateur standing or something.

And not to be facetious, but remembering the lab struggles of my friends taking that genetics course back in college, I do wonder if epigenetic effects can be demonstrated with fruit flies or something else with a life-cycle that fits within the time constraints of an undergraduate semester. The answer perhaps lies in looking for failed experiments where the dominant gene got trumped by a gene that was supposed to be recessive. I'm pretty sure that not every undergrad experiment produced the expected results. Quoting Issac Asimov: "The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not 'Eureka!' but 'That's funny...'". There'd be a certain amount of fun in being able to say "I failed the lab part of the course, but got the results published in Nature".

If you found this article to be as eye-opening as I did, and you know someone else who might enjoy it too, please pass along to them the link to this blog article. And, of course, if you know something about this topic, feel free to add a comment to further my education.