Letting the gene out of the bottle

by Mark Broatch / 15 June, 2013
What do queen bees, tortoiseshell cats and refrigerated flower bulbs have in common?
Up and coming maths and science whizzes, epigenetics needs you, says Terry Speed.

“One of the reasons I talk about this,” the Australian statistics professor told an audience last night at Auckland Museum, “is that I want to bring more mathematical scientists into the picture. If you could tell your children, or your relatives, or the people you teach, that this is a hot area. And tell them, something that I tell them a lot, if you get in early, you can capture the low-hanging fruit. Whereas if you come late, you’ve got a lot of competition.”

DNA strands. Image/Thinkstock

But exactly what is epigenetics? Speed, who works alongside epigeneticists at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Melbourne, asked the audience and got three answers along similar lines. An approximate definition is that epigenetics is the difference between the genotype – one’s genetic blueprint – and their phenotype – the cell or body one ends up with. It is the study of gene changes that happen as a result of processes outside the DNA sequence. This might sound dry but labs and Big Pharma boardrooms around the world are in a high state of excitement because these changes often occur as a result of environmental factors. And some of them can be passed down generations. They occur when gene expression is altered – whether it’s silenced or not – by mechanisms that happen outside those DNA sequences, such as methylation and histone modification.

Queen bees are epigenetic, resulting from an undistinguished female bee being fed royal jelly. Tortoiseshell cats are an epigenetic phenomenon. They are all female, from an all identical genotype, and the expression of their genes controls their pigmentation. Similarly, inbred laboratory mice can be different colours and body types. Another example of epigenetics happens when we put flower bulbs in the fridge for a few weeks to make them germinate. The imitation of winter affects the expression of their genes, and the length of time they are chilled affects the subsequent flower display.

But Speed’s key reasons for urging more scientists to get involved is to better understand how environmental factors affect diseases such as cancer and chronic ailments. He spoke about how the effect of Dutch women falling pregnant during food rationing at the end of WWII could be detected in their descendants 60 years later.

Speed, who was also an expert witness at the OJ Simpson trial, will be speaking to audiences around the country, from Palmerston North tonight, and in Hamilton, Christchurch, Wellington and Dunedin. Click here for the schedule.

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