Friday, March 21. 2014
“Thank you, Professor Lejeune, for what you did for my father and my mother. Because of you, I am proud of myself.”Unfortunately, today, a prenatal diagnosis of an extra 21st chromosome is a death sentence to many with Down Syndrome. We have come so far in our understanding of the disorder but gone down the wrong path in dealing with it. There is a seek-and-destroy mission being waged instead of an all out push for treatments to deal with the challenges that face Down Syndrome patients and families.
So why is "happy" the word of the day? A recent study revealed that 99% of adults with Down Syndrome report being happy with their lives. That is a number you will never find in any "normal" adult population. A diagnosis of Down Syndrome means an almost certain guarantee that a child will be happy. Is that not what all parents want for their children?
And yet society acts like it did before Jérôme Lejeune's discovery, with fear and ignorance. The Jérôme Lejeune Foundation asks us to act on behalf of all persons with Down Syndrome, both in and out of the womb:
The oft-quoted statistics of terminations following prenatal diagnosis are tragic testimony to the lack of acceptance we still face in our modern culture of inclusion. How can we have, on one hand, sociological data that show overwhelmingly the happiness and love children with Down syndrome bring to families; and yet on the other, consuming fear and fatal rejection by a majority? Today we should not only advocate for those living with Down syndrome – but also for those who were not given a chance to live. Even more, we should insist on getting good information into the hands of mothers and fathers who face the terrible decision whether or not to terminate, and try to spare them the consequences of a choice that often brings so much sadness and despair.This video can do in a few minutes what a lifetime of words cannot: show the precious lives that are lived with a little bit of extra genetic material. Pass it on because the world needs to know the truth about happiness in a life with Down Syndrome.
Thursday, June 13. 2013
After years of back and forth, the question of whether naturally occurring human genes are patentable has been decided by the Supreme Court. Most Americans are not aware that about a quarter of their genes have been patented by companies and research institutions over the last few decades by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
The Supreme Court has made the right decision and unanimously decided that your genes are not patentable.
Continue reading at LifeNews>>
Wednesday, November 14. 2012
I spent many, many, many hours in the lab testing people for mutations known to cause cystic fibrosis (CF). CF is a genetic disease caused by mutations in a gene called the CFTR gene. If a person has a deleterious mutation in both copies of his or her CFTR gene (one mutation inherited from dad, one from mom) then the CFTR protein that he or she produces does not function properly. Without a functioning CFTR protein, the patient produces abnormally thick mucus that collects in the lungs and pancreas causing serious breathing and digestive problems.
CF is a common genetic disease. It is estimated that 1 in 29 Caucasians carry a mutation in one of their two copies of the CFTR gene. Those that have only one CF mutation do not suffer from CF but are called carriers because they can pass this gene onto their children. There are over 1500 documented mutations in the CFTR gene and counting.
The sheer variation in these 1500 known CF mutations means that some people have mutations in both copies of their CFTR but do not have symptoms of CF. One of their copies of the CFTR gene works well enough to do the job.
I personally know such a girl. While the two mutations in her CFTR genes suggests that she should be sick (her parents were told that she would be while she was in utero), she is as healthy as any other girl her age. She does not have CF. Nor would any doctor diagnose her as a CF patient.
That is also the case for 11 year-old Colman Chadam. He is a healthy boy with mutations in his CFTR gene who has never been diagnosed with CF. And yet his middle school kicked him out simply because of his genes. (You know the DNA kind. Not the denim kind.)
Continue reading at Creative Minority Report >>
Wednesday, September 19. 2012
There is a pervasive misconception that prenatal genetic testing along with abortion "cures" or "treats" genetic disease. Since a child is not born with a genetic disease, somehow the disease is "cured." But killing babies in the womb with a genetic disease doesn't treat anything. It just gets rid of the people with the disease. The disease itself still remains uncured.
This abortion-centered approach to "treating" genetic disease is completely wrong-headed. If this was the approach taken with cancer, we would round up everyone with cancer, euthanize them, and then say we "treated" or "cured" cancer. Meanwhile the mystery of how to actually beat cancer would remain hidden.
And yet eugenic abortion seems to be the "treatment" course of choice these days. But this approach is not going to work because there will always be people born with genetic disease. You may "eradicate" the defective gene in one population by killing all the fetuses that carry it, but it may pop up somewhere else with an as yet undetected mutation, leaving those born with the disease still without a real treatment.
This story about Tay-Sachs disease is one example. Tay-Sachs is a genetic disease thought to only occur in those of Jewish decent. That was until three babies of Irish decent were born with it in the Philly Area. From CBS News:
Tay-Sachs disease is widely known as a genetic disorder among Jews, but a new study is exploring the risk in another group: The Irish.So we can focus on making sure no one with genetic disease is ever born, a completely impossible task, or we can focus on actually curing the disease. Which one seems like the better approach?
Wednesday, August 22. 2012
A while back I introduced Creative Minority readers to gene patents. In the 1980s, the United States Patent and Trademark Office started issuing patents for naturally occurring genes. Since then a quarter of our genes have been patented and companies and universities are laying claim to what we naturally produce in our bodies every day.
I asked you to keep your eye on a court battle between Myriad Genetics and the ACLU. To keep this saga pithy, I will crudely summarize: ACLU sues Myriad over its patent on breast cancer gene. Judge agrees gene patents are ridiculous. Myriad appeals. Appeals court overturns verdict saying once DNA is isolated, it can be owned. Case goes to the Supreme Court. SCOTUS kicks it back to the Appeals court to reconsider their ridiculous ruling. Now the Appeals court has upheld these gene patents allowing the systematic claim of ownership of the human body to continue.
So the Appeals Court has ruled again that you own your DNA while it is in your body, but if someone extracts it and identifies the purpose of it, they can own it. Even though it is still your DNA from your body.
Continue reading at Creative Minority Report >>
Tuesday, June 26. 2012
While the country breathlessly waits for the Supreme Court to decide on Obamacare, there is another court battle to keep an eye on. While this battle is not as critical as the one on our health care system, it is important for the health of anyone with DNA.
For decades the U.S. Patent Office has been issuing patents for naturally occurring genes. Many people are not aware that about 25% of all human genes are patented. This means that a company or university owns the genetic code that makes up that gene. They own the sequence of genes that you have and use in your body everyday and once your DNA is isolated from your body, they "own" your genes.
Gene patenting affects you directly whether you know it or not.
Continue reading at Creative Minority Report >>
Friday, June 8. 2012
Dr. Jérôme Lejeune was a remarkable man. He was the geneticist who discovered the cause of Down Syndrome and his was a devout Catholic. Dr. Lejeune was appalled at the way his discovery was being used in a prenatal seek-and-destroy mission against those with Down Syndrome. My father met Jérôme Lejeune and spoke with him for a couple of hours. Read my father's touching recollections here.
Dr. Lejeune died in 1994, but his tireless work for those with Down Syndrome continues on in the Jérôme Lejeune Foundation USA whose goal is to "help researchers find a therapeutic treatment that will improve the intellectual abilities of persons who have Trisomy 21."
Two brothers are embarking on a grueling coast-to-coast bike ride to support this worthy foundation. From the press release:
TWO BROTHERS RIDE FROM COAST TO COAST TO SUPPORT THE JEROME LEJEUNE FOUNDATION, USA.Continue reading at LifeNews >>
Friday, March 9. 2012
I have revised my piece on genetic determinism slightly for the Creative Minority Report. There always seems to be a lively discussion over there. Visit if you haven't read it before or want to join in the conversation.
Genetic determinism is not only one of the most insidious philosophies that society has swallowed whole, but also one of the most ignorant. Genetic determinism is everywhere. How many times have you heard someone say, "It's in my genes. I can't help it!"
Scientists everywhere seem to find a gene for everything from promiscuity to being a ruthless dictator. One company is now selling a simple DNA test that they claim can tell everything you about your children, all of their future strengths and weaknesses. They claim that "without you understanding what your child's inborn talents are, your child is in for disaster!"
Continue reading at Creative Minority Report >>
Sunday, January 29. 2012
Today at Mass there was a 3 year-old boy with Down Syndrome in the pew in front of us. When it came time to wish each other peace, every person around him got at least 2 hand shakes and words of peace. A shake and a "Peace be with you" given with a love and joy I have never seen before in a child his age. I was lucky enough for him to offer me his hand three times. I looked around at the beaming faces around me. The toothy grins, the warm hearts, the smiling eyes all fixed on this child. A child who is truly lucky to have made it out of the womb.
I say this to every so-called medical professional, or any other elitist, who has ever suggested to a woman pregnant with a child with Down Syndrome that the "compassionate" thing to do, the "loving" thing to so, the ONLY thing to do, is to abort their child. What I saw today was TRUE compassion, TRUE love, TRUE happiness. Real, pure love and compassion that was only made possible by the strength and courage of a woman to resist your twisted logic. My family and I were privileged to experience it. With 90% of children with Downs aborted, we are all being starved of the ability to experience the infectious happiness of a person with Down Syndrome. We are not the richer for it.
Monday, October 31. 2011
Trisomy 18 is a genetic condition where a person has three copies of chromosome 18. Trisomy 21, three copies of chromosome 21, is the genetic condition that causes Down Syndrome. Both are caused by three copies of a chromosome, but trisomy 18 is considered to be "incompatible with life." This is a medical term that means that most children with trisomy 18 die before or shortly after birth.
I look at the joy and I look at the simplicity and the love that she emits and its clear to me that we are the disabled ones not her. She's got it right. She's got a beautiful spirit. One that emits unconditional love and we can learn a lot from that.
So far from being "incompatible with life" Bella is fully compatible with life. A life worth emulating for its unconditional love and joy.
Wednesday, October 5. 2011
The worst statistic that is floating around these days is the one that upwards of 90% or more of Down Syndrome children are aborted after prenatal testing. I am convinced that this is because parents are pressured into abortion by their health care providers. In a totally backwards world, parents are told that they are selfish and evil if they DO NOT kill their special needs child. And with a new, early, non-invasive genetic test on the horizon, the pressure on parents will only increase. I refer to this quote more often than I should, but I believe it is so important to understand what is being said in doctor's offices about those with Down Syndrome:
"A woman I know was told by her obstetrician that her fetus had Down syndrome. The doctor ordered her to abort, she refused.... Another woman was similarly coerced. Her doctor told her that her baby would be more like a fish than a human and would only be as smart as a baboon." -- From Lori B. Andrews book The Clone Age
In the face of such discouraging numbers, I found some that are not only encouraging, but depict a more accurate picture of life with Down Syndrome. Researchers at Children's Hospital in Boston surveyed families where a member had Down Syndrome and found that Down Syndrome is a positive. From MSNBC.com:
The Reillys represent some of the experiences reported in three surveys conducted by doctors at Children’s Hospital in Boston that suggest the reality of Down syndrome is positive for a vast majority of parents, siblings and people with Down syndrome themselves.
So once again the culture of death distorts the truth by suggesting that parents are doing the "right thing" by killing their child with Down Syndrome before they are born. The culture of death says, "Better dead than have Downs." But 99% of adults with Down Syndrome report they are happy with their lives. I doubt you would find anything close to that percentage in the "healthy" adult population. And yet it is these happy adults that are being targeted for destruction in the womb. How upside down is that?
Instead of calling people with Down Syndrome "baboons," I suggest doctors give the news of a Down Syndrome diagnosis with a smile saying, "There will be challenges but your child is nearly guaranteed to be a happy adult!"
Wednesday, March 9. 2011
Genetic determinism is not only one of the most insidious philosophies that society has swallowed whole, but also one of the most ignorant. Genetic determinism is everywhere. How many times have you heard someone say, "It's in my genes. I can't help it!" Scientists everywhere seem to find a gene for everything from promiscuity to being a ruthless dictator. Companies are now selling the idea that you can tell everything about your children, all of their future strengths and weaknesses, from a simple DNA test.
The premise that we are no more than the sum of the genes we inherited from our parents is not only a dangerous reduction of humanity to a simple sequence of letters, but it is outright wrong. Wrong both morally and scientifically. Science is quickly learning that genetics is a lot more complicated that we thought. It is not just about what genes you have but what genes are turned on or off. A whole branch of genetics called epigenetics is dedicated to understanding how and why genes are expressed. It turns out the sequence of DNA is only a part of the picture. Environment also plays a very important role. Let me give you a very powerful example that I use all the time. The following picture is of genetically identical mice.
Genetically identical mice
That's right these mice are identical twins. So what causes one to be fat and yellow and the other one to be small and brown? One received a lot of folic acid while he was in his mother's womb. The other did not.
So if one small factor like a single vitamin during gestation can create such huge differences in genetically identical individuals, what could a lifetime of a millions of environmental changes effect? What if diet, exercise, and home life are just as important to shaping a human being as genes are? Before we fell in love with the gene as a scapegoat, we used to understand that these where important factors in molding a person.
So why are we so in love with genetic determinism? Because it plays to our arrogance and and our laziness. If children have inborn talents and weaknesses that cannot change, that lets every single parent off the hook doesn't it? If I am destined to be fat because of my genes, then I really have no reason to get up off the couch do I? And if a person is simply the sum of his genes and some of us are more successful than others, then how easy is it to believe that some of us are genetically superior to others? It made sense to Hitler and now we, cognizant or not, are following the same path.
On that path we are led by the best and the brightest minds. Take Julian Savulescu for example. He is chair of the Oxford Center for practical ethics at the University of Oxford and he believes that we should choose the best children just by looking at the sequence of their DNA while they are embryos:
Dr. Savulescu is by no means the only brain in an ivory tower suggesting we make sure only the "genetically fit" are born. Brains with enough arrogance to think we even know how to define "genetically fit." I could go on all day listing the names of academics (and Nazi dictators) who have fallen in the genetic determinism trap.
Whether it is your neighbor or some Ph.D. from Oxford, just remember the picture of the mice above every time someone suggests that it is the sequence of your DNA that defines you.
Wednesday, March 31. 2010
This is a post to thank all of those who have donated their plasma to save babies from Rh disease. Without your plasma 3 of my children may have fallen victim to Rh disease. Who are these selfless angels? The men and women who have antibodies to the Rh factor that donate their plasma to make products like RhoGAM and the Anti-D vaccine.
What is Rh disease? It is a severe form of anemia that is caused by a mother's immune system attacking a fetus. We are all either Rh positive or Rh negative. Rh is a factor on our red blood cells. If you are Rh positive you have the factor. If you are Rh negative you do not. The problem comes when a Rh negative woman and an Rh positive man make an Rh positive child. During delivery, mom can be exposed to the baby's Rh positive blood. If this happens she will make antibodies against the Rh factor. While the first pregnancy with a Rh positive child is fine, any subsequent pregnancies with an Rh positive baby for a mother with Rh antibodies can be fatal to the baby. The mom's Rh antibodies find the Rh positive red blood cells of the baby and attack. This causes mild to severe anemia in the baby and can cause stillbirth.
Up until the Rh factor was discovered in 1937, millions of women would miscarry their second, third, fourth (and so on) pregnancies. But now that we know an injection of anti-Rh antibodies can prevent a woman from producing her own antibodies to Rh factor. This is the RhoGAM injection that Rh negative mothers like me get before and after birth to prevent our immune systems from becoming sensitized to the Rh factor.
Without RhoGAM and other anti-Rh injections, millions of babies may not have survived gestation. But where do the anti-Rh antibodies come from? They come from generous donation of plasma from Rh negative people who have been exposed to Rh positive blood. These people have the anti-Rh antibodies and donate their plasma to make products like RhoGAM.
Lately, the news has picked up on the heroes that donate their plasma. I want to highlight and thank them for their selfless donations. Some of these unsung heroes are women who developed Rh sensitivity and lost babies to stillbirth. They donate so other women never have to experience their loss. From The Daily Mail:
An Australian man who has been donating his extremely rare kind of blood for 56 years has saved the lives of more than two million babies.
And from USA Today:
Thank you to all who donate their plasma to help save babies from Rh disease. There are no words that I can use to express my gratitude. All I can do is post a picture of my beautiful children, some of whom are alive because of your generosity.
Tuesday, February 16. 2010
According to new DNA tests done on King Tut's mummy, he had a cleft palate and a club foot. He likely walked with a cane and had a bone disorder due to the inbreeding in his family tree. (His mother and father were brother and sister.) Recent stories of babies in Britain being aborted for club foot, (I am sure the same goes on in the United States) indicate to me that King Tut may never have made it out of the womb in today's society.
Certainly another instance from history that should give pause in society's quest for genetic perfection. It is dangerous and wrong to reduce an individual to a simple genetic defect. The genetic lottery should never be a criteria for whether a fetus gets to live or die.
Imagine all of the King Tuts, or according to this website, Damon Wayans, Troy Aikins, Mia Hamms and Kristi Yamaguchis (all born with club foot) that will never see the light of day.
Thursday, January 21. 2010
DNA is largely considered to be the gold standard in forensics. If a suspect's DNA is found at the crime scene, it is compelling evidence for a conviction. But how is a DNA match determined? There are many places in our genetic code where there are short sequences that are repeated over and over. These repeated regions are called short tandem repeats or STRs. The places where these STRs occur are called loci. There are many variations in the lengths of STRs (I may have 5 repeats at a particular loci and you may have 8 ) and by looking at many different loci scientists create a kind of profile or human bar code that is unique to each individual. This technique is also used to determine parentage because you inherit half of your unique barcode from your mother and half from your father.
The problem comes from the fact that most DNA from a crime scene is not perfect. It can be degraded or mixed with DNA from other individuals. Sometimes labs can only match 9 loci to the DNA found at a crime scene.
Scientists are starting to question this assumption that 10-13 loci are enough to rule out the possibility of a random match to DNA other than the suspect. In other words, if 10-13 loci are not enough to make a definitive barcode, then a 10-13 loci DNA profile can actually match more than one individual. According New Scientist, a recent look into the possibility of random matches produced some serious results:
So in a sample of 65,000 profiles, 122 profiles matched at 9 loci, 20 profiles matched at 10 loci, and 1 profile matched at both 11 and 12 loci. According to Bill Thompson, experts have testified that 9 loci is enough for a unique profile. This comparison calls into question the assumption that 9-13 loci are enough to definitively match a suspect's DNA to that found at a crime scene.
As a result, researchers want access to CODIS, US national DNA database, and its 7 million DNA profiles to test whether 10-13 loci are enough to rule out random matches or if more loci are needed for a definitive match. In a letter to Science magazine, 41 research scientists, forensic scientists, statisticians and legal scholars called for the FBI to give them access to the profiles in CODIS stripped of identifying information like name and date of birth so they can test previous assumptions and study how DNA profiles differ by geographic region and by race.
For now the FBI has not granted access to CODIS citing genetic privacy as the reason:
I am very interested to see what comes of this request if anything. I worked briefly with similar technology to see how well we could identify maternal DNA contamination in amniotic fluid. If 10 loci are not enough for a definitive match, and more like 13 or above are needed, this could be a huge problem for forensics and for courts all over.
Friday, October 2. 2009
From the BBC:
Friday, September 18. 2009
From Jack Smith at The Catholic Key:
"One of the first things that popped out at me when I moved to Kansas City from San Francisco was the presence of Down Syndrome kids. You don’t see hardly any in San Francisco. Here in the heartland they are welcomed and loved in schools and communities and most importantly, born." Beautifully said Jack.
Thursday, June 11. 2009
Thursday, May 21. 2009
I was on the Son Rise Morning Show with Dan Patrick this morning talking about GINA, the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008. The Son Rise Morning show has been great in helping me get the word out about Catholicism and biotechnology. Please support them with a donation.
Here is the audio:
Wednesday, May 20. 2009
I will be on the Son Rise Morning Show with Dan Patrick on Thursday morning at around 8:50 am EST discussing the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008 or GINA that went into effect this month. GINA prohibits insurance companies and employers from discriminating against otherwise healthy people because of a genetic mutation that increases risk of disease.
GINA is in keeping with Catholic teaching on genetic discrimination. In this address, Pope Benedict XVI said the following:
"Every human being, therefore, is much more than the singular combination of genetic information that is transmitted to him by parents."
For more information about what GINA does and does not do visit Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008.
Tuesday, May 19. 2009
Scientists have announced that they have found a genetic variant that may be associated with autism. For genetics, this is great news. You would think that all autism advocates would be rejoicing at the discovery of a piece of a very complex puzzle. But some are not. Why? Because eugenic abortion and preimplantation genetic diagnosis are prevalent. I cannot say it enough: eugenic abortion and PGD do not cure disease, they only get rid of the people with the disease. So with every new genetic discovery, those who are sick or disabled become more fearful that those like them will be eliminated.
That is exactly the fear of Ari Ne'e-man. In this Newsweek piece titled "Erasing Autism," Ari Ne'e-man, who has Asperger Syndrome, voices his fear:
The genetics is not the problem here. The problem is a society that likes to throw the baby out with the dirty genetic bathwater. Ne'eman should not have to fear genetic research. But because our society embraces death as a legitimate medical treatment, he, like many others, sees every piece of genetic information as a new way to eliminate those who are "genetically defective."
The article is titled "Erasing Autism." But what Ne'eman astutely sees is a society that will happily commence "Erasing [those with] Autism" instead.
For all you philosophy junkies out there. (Are there any left I wonder?) Thomas Aquinas would have loved genetics by Thomas Jackson:
by Carlo Crivelli
Hat Tip: Bioethics.com
Monday, May 18. 2009
I found this letter to Doc Gurley yesterday:
Until now, this situation was a problem. Genetic tests like the one for Factor V Leiden are supposed to make you healthier. Knowing you have a genetic predisposition to blood clots, as the letter points out, means you can make informed decisions about your lifestyle that can help you healthy.
National Human Genome Research Institute
The problem with genetic tests like this is that they only tell you of an increased risk of developing health problems. Having the Factor V Leiden mutation only means you have an increased risk of blood clots, it does not mean that you will definitely develop them. There are people out there who are perfectly healthy that have no idea they carry a genetic predisposition to disease.
It is outrageous that an insurance company would deny an otherwise healthy young woman health coverage simply because she might develop a blood clot. Well, they cannot anymore. According to Doc Gurley, GINA is now in the house:
The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008, also known as GINA, prohibits employers and insurance companies from discriminating against otherwise healthy individuals because of a genetic predisposition to disease. So if you have ever been denied coverage because of some genetic test result, and you are otherwise healthy: now is the time to call up those insurance companies and ask. They won't be calling you. As Doc Gurley writes:
Friday, May 15. 2009
It is not often these days that the Catholic Church and the ACLU agree, but the on the issue of gene patents, they share common ground. Here is why.
You also may not be aware that the patenting of your genes affects you directly. Because a company legal "owns" a gene sequence, they control who is able to test that gene or research that gene. In the case of genetic testing, labs are limited on what genes they can offer tests for because of gene patents, which limits the choices they can offer patients. Labs that are allowed to test a patented gene pay royalties to the companies that own the genes which drives up the cost of the genetic test.
In the case of some genes like the breast cancer genes BRCA I and BRCA II, one company, Myriad, owns the gene and only Myriad offers the test for variations that signal a high risk of breast or ovarian cancer. This means that if a patient wants a second test run by another company to confirm the test result and test interpretation before they have radical surgery, they are out of luck. Many women simply cannot afford the $3000 test that could give them the information to save their life. And because of gene patents, they cannot go anywhere else.
I once got a call from a frantic father whose daughter was diagnosed with Long QT. They were faced with putting their 4 year-old little girl on serious medication and fitting her with a pace maker because of some genetic testing results. They wanted a second opinion, but one lab in the United States owned the patent and only they offered the test.
This is an outrage. I know first hand that depending on the design of the test, different labs can have different results in molecular genetic testing. I personally spent weeks trying to figure out why we got a different result than another hospital on a patient and discovered that because our tests were designed differently, we got different results. And this was by no means the only time something like that happened. I quickly discovered that in genetics, sometimes the answer you get, depends on the question you ask.Patenting naturally occurring gene sequences is also unethical. It is hard to find official Church teaching on gene patents, but I did find this quote from John Paul II in an address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences:
I believe that I am interpreting John Paull II correctly by saying that is unethical to patent a naturally occurring gene. Patents can be awarded for inventions, like novel approaches to testing or manipulating the gene, but not for the gene itself.
This week the ACLU has announced they are going after gene patents. From Liberate the Breast Cancer Gene:
Here is the video.
Monday, April 13. 2009
Epigenetics is an exciting field. Scientists are discovering that it is not just what genes you inherited, it is what genes you are expressing. Epigenetics is the study of how and why genes are turned on and off.
Randy Jirtle/Duke U
Adding folic acid to the diet of pregnant mice alters the offspring’s gene expression. Despite their appearances, the two mice are genetically identical.
What is most intriguing is that there is clear evidence that changes in gene expression start in the womb. In his piece, Genes Take a Back Seat, Ivan Amato discusses a study looking at the 60 year-olds that were fetuses during the Dutch Hunger Winter, a Nazi imposed famine during World War II. Researchers found that 60 year-olds who were exposed to famine while in the womb had decreased methylation, a way in which gene expression is controlled, compared to their contemporaries who were not.
Genes are not everything. The environment you are exposed to from the moment you are conceived has an impact on your genes and how they are expressed:
And the environment you were exposed to in the womb, does not just have an impact on you, but also on your children:
What’s more, all of this epigenetic signage, which does nothing to any gene’s signature sequence of nucleotides, is heritable, at least to a degree. In development, this is the type of heritability that ensures, for example, that liver cells beget only liver cells and not brain cells once in a while. It is a form of cellular memory. And evidence is mounting that epigenetic markings on egg or sperm cells and those acquired as a result of some sort of toxic exposure or hardship can be inherited for several generations, Jirtle says. This means that how well your mother ate and whether your father smoked when you were conceived could affect the health of your own children. [my emphasis]
Evidence of epigenetic changes that occur in the womb naturally beg the question: Does this not mean that embryos and fetuses are more than just blobs of amorphous tissue? Clearly this evidence confirms what we all know instinctively, that we are distinct continuous organisms from the moment we are conceived to the day we die. If we are not, how could something our grandmother does while she is pregnant with our mother possibly affect our genetics?
Epigenetics excites me for many reasons not just because it gives us a peek into the womb and gives a voice to the life that grows there. It counteracts the genetic fatalism that seems to be slowly creeping into our subconscious. Our society erroneously thinks that if something is encoded into our DNA that we are destined to live out that sequence of nucleotides. Amato points out:
Many a child has been aborted because of this "gene-centric way of thinking." Epigenetics will hopefully replace this genetic fatalism and give us all hope that we are not just sequences of As, Cs, Gs, and Ts.
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