Did you know that queen bees and worker bees are genetically identical? They have identical DNA. So what makes them so different? What makes the queen have a larger body, live a longer life and be able to lay thousands of eggs while worker bees are smaller and sterile? It’s all in what they eat!
The queen bee eats nothing but royal jelly her entire life while worker bees only eat royal jelly for the first few days of their life before switching to honey and pollen. So, you might be thinking – what on earth does this have to do with epigenetics? Actually, everything.
Royal jelly contains a compound that stops the action of specific enzymes that normally remove epigenetic tags from DNA. This results in a build-up of these tags and it is this build-up of tags that switches on key genes required for the development of a queen. Without this specific chemical compound in their diet, larvae develop into workers. For the actual science behind this why don’t you read the article that inspired this blog: Epigenetics – It’s not just genes that make us.
What is epigenetics?
What do I mean by ‘epigenetic tags’? In fact, some of you might be asking yourselves ‘what on earth is epigenetics’? So let’s start with that.
For many years scientists believed that the genes you are born with determine who you will be and what diseases you will develop. Then, in the year 2000, Randy Jirtle and Robert Waterland produced a groundbreaking genetic experiment showing that it is not your genes alone that define you – it is the way in which they are expressed that is important.
Before we go any further, let’s get to grips with some terminology:
What is gene expression ?
Gene expression is the process by which the information from a gene is used to produce a new product, usually a protein. Genes are the blueprints for proteins and although they cannot be changed, the expression of them can be changed.
What is epigenetics?
Epigenetics is the process by which genetic expression is modified without the underlying gene itself being changed. Epigenetics is the process in which molecular tags attached to genes control the expression of those genes – these tags are like switches that can turn genes on and off and so control the end product. Epigenetics is influenced by many things, especially diet, environmental toxins, exercise, sleep and stress – all things you can choose to control.
Now let’s get back to the year 2000 and Jirtle and Waterland. They took two fat, yellow mice who carried a particular gene that made them continually hungry, yellow in colour and prone to cancer and diabetes. These mice are commonly referred to as agouti mice and the gene they carried was the agouti gene.
Jirtle and Waterland did something a bit different with the mother mouse. Starting before conception, they fed her a diet of foods known to be rich in methyl-donors which affect epigenetic tags. And guess what happened – her offspring were born slim, brown and lived to old age without developing diabetes or cancer!
What is the point of epigenetics? What can it do for me?
I hope you can see where I am going with this blog? What you eat and do on a day-to-day basis really does matter!
We may not choose what genes we are born with – but we can choose which genes we want expressed! Think about that…….seriously.
“Epigenetics is proving we have some responsibility for the integrity of our genome. Before, genes predetermined outcomes. Now everything we do—everything we eat or smoke—can affect our gene expression and that of future generations. Epigenetics introduces the concept of free will into our idea of genetics.”Randy Jirtle
The wonderful thing about epigenetics is that even if you are born with a specific gene variant, there is still a lot you can do to lead a good, healthy life. Start by taking a look at what you are eating – which agouti mouse are you turning yourself into?