Epigenetics: How It Affects Our Future

Describe the scientific concept (e.g. plate tectonics, quantum mechanics) most important to your world view and explain why it is so critical to your outlook.

For decades, the classic dispute of “nature vs. nurture” in regards to our maturation has dominated the debate about how children develop. Does a specific gene passed on from your parents predispose you to a life of crime? Are children more likely to develop high blood pressure because of their genetic composition, or from their exposure to an unhealthy diet? The world is fascinated with finding the answers to these questions, as they have dramatic implications as to how much free will each of us can hope to maintain. Like many people, I thought that the issue of development boiled down to these two competing forces: the unchangeable traits bestowed upon you by your parents, and the effect of your environment on the person you would become. So for me, the concept of a possible third option, known as epigenetics, was both confusing and strangely exciting.

Epigenetics refers to the modification of an organism’s genetic expression; in other words, it embodies the control over which genes in the genome are actually expressed. Studies performed with older identical twins have shown that even when two people share the exact same genetic sequence, their epigenetic markers, when built up over time, can lead to drastic differences in their predispositions to certain diseases. What is significant, though, is that these markers are only temporary and can be changed due to certain environmental factors. Most importantly, it means that the effects of the genome on the person’s traits are no longer set in stone, and that something we once thought was rigid and fixed may be more within our control than we thought.

The concept of epigenetics did more than revolutionize the way we think about genetics and its role in development; it raised new questions as to how accountable we must be for our actions. Epigenetic studies have shown that the choices we make can not only affect our lives, but also affect our children’s lives as well. What if the fact that I didn’t exercise enough predisposed my child towards contracting a certain disease? What if the fact that I didn’t eat healthily enough meant that my child wouldn’t be able to handle stress? Now, it seems that my actions won’t just affect me anymore, and as such, this mentality dictates much of my life.

The implications of epigenetics encompass the way we think about the future and our sense of familial responsibility. Personally, I feel inspired to live a more complete, healthy, and balanced life, not just for my personal fulfillment, but as a sort of stepping stone for the health of my children. As such, I have an increased appreciation for my own actions and choices, and it is the concept of epigenetics that guides the way I think about the future.

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