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.

MostReadArticlesCollectionWidget - Most Read - Used in articles
AdvertModule - Advert - M-Rec / Halfpage


The awards season reckons with a new world
86173 2018-01-23 00:00:00Z Television

The awards season reckons with a new world

by Diana Wichtel

A tone of anger and uplift prevailed – thanks to #MeToo and Time's Up – as the first cab of the awards season left the rank.

Read more
Jacinda Ardern broke baby news to Winston Peters over tea and sandwiches
86125 2018-01-22 08:15:08Z Politics

Jacinda Ardern broke baby news to Winston Peters o…

by RNZ

Deputy Prime Minister got a home visit by Ms Ardern to break the news of her pregnancy.

Read more
Road toll: 'Without a doubt' increase is linked to police cuts
86121 2018-01-22 07:22:48Z Social issues

Road toll: 'Without a doubt' increase is linked to…

by Emile Donovan and Tim Brown

Nearly 100 dedicated road police positions have been cut in the past five years, while the road toll rose 50 percent increase in the same period.

Read more
New Mongrel Mob app 'bloody stupid' and insensitive
86117 2018-01-22 06:57:35Z Social issues

New Mongrel Mob app 'bloody stupid' and insensitiv…

by Emma Hatton

Gang violence mediators say a Mongrel Mob-themed game is 'stupid', but its maker says he was just taking advantage of a gap in the market.

Read more
Jacinda Ardern: Government's focus turns to '300-day plan'
86114 2018-01-22 06:38:40Z Politics

Jacinda Ardern: Government's focus turns to '300-d…

by Mei Heron

Labour's caucus meets for the first time this year, with the PM saying there are still policies to be finalised for the govt's first 100 days.

Read more
New Zealanders have long loved a good ghost story
86094 2018-01-22 00:00:00Z History

New Zealanders have long loved a good ghost story

by Redmer Yska

We New Zealanders are known for being down to earth and no-nonsense, but there's a surprising number of Kiwi stories with a supernatural element.

Read more
How to avoid burnout at work
86051 2018-01-22 00:00:00Z Psychology

How to avoid burnout at work

by Marc Wilson

Taking positive steps at work will help keep weariness at bay.

Read more
A puppy-buyer's guide to getting a new dog
86100 2018-01-21 00:00:00Z Social issues

A puppy-buyer's guide to getting a new dog

by Sally Blundell

Just saying “oh, how adorable” is not all you need to do before taking on a new dog.

Read more