A few years back, The Tyrant and I started to notice that seeds we saved from our sexually reproducing, open-pollinated garden plants grew better and were more pest and disease-resistant than their parents, even though they were the same genetic variety as their parent and they were growing in the same organic garden system.
I became curious as to what natural process could explain our observations, and that’s when I stumbled upon the field of epigenetics.
What Is Epigenetics?
Epigenetics is one of the most fascinating and under-recognized scientific discoveries since Watson and Crick took LSD and decoded DNA.
In the video above, Duke University’s Dr. Randy Jirtle—one of the leading pioneers in the field of epigenetics—is presenting some of his lab’s finding at the National Institute of Health.
Here are a few initial thoughts and takeaways:
1. DNA is like the keys on your piano; your epigenome is your pianist. In case you’ve never heard of it, the epigenome consists of the chemical compounds that tell your DNA what to do, where to do it and when to do it, e.g. grow a finger vs grow a nose, grow cancer vs fight cancer—all of which can be functions undertaken by any one of your cells using the same identical DNA toolkit. Think of DNA as your hardware and your epigenome as the software that controls your hardware. Epigenetic markers can be passed from cell to cell as your cells replicate, and most alarmingly from generation to generation. What scientists have discovered is that how you eat, smoke, exercise, etc will not only impact you, it will impact your children and your children’s children. Since the US has the most obese population in the world, Americans are passing down quite a terrible epigenetic legacy to future generations. The good news is that it appears you and your epigenome can literally recode your DNA via proper diet, exercise and reduced exposure to harmful environmental contaminants.
2. The debate about nature vs nurture is obsolete. As Jirtle says, “we are getting nature via nurture.” Interpreting his statement a bit: genetic determinism is an unscientific and outmoded worldview that fails to account for the vast interactivity between the dynamic systems of genes, the epigenome, the microbiome and the equally dynamic conditions to which those systems connect and adapt, e.g. the broader environment (parental care, chemical exposures, diet, exercise, stress, etc). You and your epigenome can control how your genes express, in the same way that a pianist (your epigenome) controls which piano keys (your DNA) are played. These new findings help explain why, as cool and important as it was, the Human Genome Project flopped in its quest to find direct genetic causes for various diseases. It now appears that most diseases are due to environmental factors and not directly attributable to “flaws” in our genetic hardware.
Epigenetics may also help account for why independent, multi-year studies of genetically engineered annual crops show no increase in yields and an increase in pesticide usage. Essentially, the companies creating these crops are “solving” problems that don’t exist. That’s not to say the technology is inherently evil or that it hasn’t or won’t yield some good results. Rather, instead of focusing exclusively on one aspect of the system (plant DNA), we need to focus on the entire living, dynamic system and the interactions that give rise to healthy organisms, whether human or plant (which is what agroecology and organic food production & plant breeding is all about). It may take a quantum computer to be able to account for and measure all the variables in that equation, considering there can be up to 50 billion living microbes in a single teaspoon of healthy organic soil. Each of those microbes has its own DNA and epigenome. And each variety of microbe (bacteria, fungi, yeast, protozoa, etc) serves a unique yet interrelated role in the soil food web, the health of the plant growing in that soil web and the quantity, quality and variety of nutritional loads those plants eventually offer to the people consuming them.
3. Life is remarkably complex and adaptive. The combined processes of natural selection, homeostasis, neuroplasticity and epigenetic inheritance make us (and other lifeforms) incredibly dynamic creatures capable of instant or multigenerational changes and/or adaptability to our specific environments. Various pills, machines, and medical procedures may drastically increase our ability to stay alive under conditions that would have meant certain death for our ancestors, but they can’t and won’t magically make us healthy. Therefore, if you plan to reproduce, you might want to be aware that what you eat, drink, breath, and think within your lifetime, since these factors will have a transgenerational impact. As epigeneticists say, “you are what your grandparents ate.”
4. Let’s stop blaming seeds for growing poorly in bad soil and let’s stop blaming people for being sick or impoverished when raised in bad conditions. Again, as Dr. Randy Jirtle says, “we are getting nature via nurture.” If our success or measurements of “progress” don’t account for or even acknowledge the success or continued existence of other people or organisms that we inhabit the planet with, we’ve got to start measuring differently. As the saying goes, “what gets measured, gets improved.” Instead of simply focusing on how many pounds of a particular patented commodity crop we can extract from an acre of land at the lowest price possible, let’s also ask companies and regulators to begin measuring and reporting other important factors such as:
- how many other species benefit from the acre of land and the plant systems in use;
- how much soil is lost based on usage practices;
- how (or whether) the crops and growing methods used are reducing or eliminating the need for synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and water input;
- the quality, quantity, and variety of nutrition created by the crops;
- how agricultural runoff is impacting nearby water supplies/watersheds;
At present, the price tag and nutrition labels presented to consumers on the end product are important considerations, but they’re relatively primitive instruments that are completely ineffective at accounting for a wider range of externalities.
Considering that we’re in the midst of the Anthropocene Extinction and there could be 12 billion humans here within this century, we need to broaden our measurement parameters and make adjustments now, not later.
Live Like Your Grandchildren’s Lives Depend On It
Each of us requires food, shelter, water and other amenities to survive. We highly encourage you to be a conscientious consumer: think about where your food and beverages come from and the ripple effects of your other consumption patterns. Is your yard (the small piece of earth that you have control over) helping restore ecological health while producing healthy foods for you and your family, or is it a pesticide, fertilizer, and water-intensive turf-grass monoculture designed with the sole intent of impressing the Joneses? If 10 billion people did what you did on a daily basis, what impact would it have on the biosphere? Closer to home, if you continue doing what you’re doing now, what impact will it have on your children and grandchildren?
Epigenetics helps enrich our understanding of the biological mechanisms by which our current decisions can, will, and do impact generations to come. Let’s act accordingly.