Beware the pseudo gene genies

Jul 20, 2015

by Adam Rutherford

The legion purveyors of flapdoodle love a real but tricksy scientific concept that they can bolt their pernicious quackery on to. “Quantum” is surely the biggest offender, offering up some mystical scienceyness, none more so than in “quantum healing” – an unfathomable extension of reiki, which, let’s face it, is already graphene-thin flimflam. The annexing of this word from fundamental physics ranges from washing-powder branding to the theory of mind. “Quantum consciousness” is an idea that has generated some serious discussion over the years, but for me slots squarely into the category of “using one thing we don’t understand to explain another”.

Lots of real scientific terms – such as “neuro” or “nano” – get borrowed for a spot of buzzword scienceyness. Epigenetics is a real and important part of biology, but due to predictable quackery, it is threatening to become the new quantum.

All of your cells contain all of your 22,000 genes, but not all of them need to be active all the time. They need to be turned on or off, in the right tissue, at the right moment, and so we have incredible networks of control systems in our genomes – circuits, programmes, hierarchies. Epigenetics literally means “in addition to genetics” and is one such system – modifications to DNA without altering the gene sequence itself. Think of DNA as an orchestral score, the notes on the page unchanging. But the annotations on the manuscript will dictate how the music sounds, with crescendo and lento and adagio. The conductor and orchestra play their annotated manuscript, and each performance is unique, even when the original scores are identical.

Many individual genes are modulated, or tagged, like this too, and many corresponding traits are dependent on this system. We’ve known about this for decades. Rat mothers lick their pups, and those that are licked less have measurably higher stress levels, which correlates with less epigenetic tagging on genes associated with stress. What’s more, it’s reversible. So, the environment influences genetics.

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