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June 10, 2010 29 mins

Epigenetics is a fascinating field of genetics that studies how the epigenome and environmental, nutritional and social factors affect gene expression. Josh and Chuck explain how epigenetics works in this episode.

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Speaker 1 (00:00):
Brought to you by the reinvented two thousand twelve Camray.
It's ready. Are you welcome to Stuff You Should Know
from House Stuff Works dot Com. Hey, and welcome to
the podcast. I'm Josh Clark. There's Charles W. Chuck Bryant,
and I'm Charles W. Chuck Bryant, and I'm Josh Clark.

And that makes this stuff you should know? Right, Yeah,
So this is our podcast. We've been doing it for
a while. And um, are you welcoming new listeners? Yeah,
here's another one. Okay, all right, and actually I'm pretty
excited about this one. I've been wanting to do this
one for a while. You've been bugging me. Genetics, Chuck it,
do it. Let's do it. The cutting edge of research

of human, of our understanding of life, not just human,
of all life. My mind was blown. It's a pretty
big deal, real big deal. So, Chuck, you've heard of
the genetic revolution. Charles Darwin, he had a long beard,
loved seat turtles, that kind of thing. He's a vacation
in the Galapa Ghosts right. He um wrote on the
Origin of the species and h it was a pretty

groundbreaking book. It's basically what He came up with, was
we are driven by our genes, right, we have genetic
code and our DNA, and that makes us red headed,
it makes us timid, it makes us courageous pro to cancer,
right exactly, and it makes us stick tongued alright sometimes yeah,

and we are slaves to these genes, right, there's nothing
we can do to alter and we get him from
our parents. But you know, if if we find out
that over time, being thick tongued is um say, advantageous
to human survival, we're all gonna talk like me. But
millions of years from now, at least hundreds of thousands,

it definitely does. And I just look for it in
the future, okay, when we're all running around with robot bodies. Um.
There was another guy, and actually Darwin, just to show off,
once came across a type of orchid, right, the moon orchid,
I believe it's what it's called. And it had a
very very deep, um, I guess pistol pistol or statement.

I can never keep those things apart. And the nectar
was down in there and he looked at that flower
and said, you know what, there is an organism out there,
probably a flying organism that it has a probosist that
fits perfectly into that flower. It was a hawk moth.
And sure enough, a few a few years later, at

some point in time later, they discovered the hawk moth
and it was pretty much literally made to fit. Right.
So there's another guy named Jean Baptiste Lamarck, who I
know you've heard of as well, right, all and all
his Lamarkian stuff. Right, he was, He was about sixty
to eighty. He was working about sixty or so years
before Darwin. He had his own ideas based on giraffe's right. Yes,

he said that giraffe's next grew to reach the food,
but it was just over the course of a few generations, right,
And that's kind of flies in the face of Darwin. Yeah, sure,
who said it takes hundreds of thousands of years with
this stuff called epigenetics that we're about to talk about today.
Suddenly people are starting to go back and look at Lamarck,
who was kind of dismissed as a quack. Yeah, um,

and say, you know what, lamark may have been right
in this one. Yeah, prepare for your minds to be melted.
Let's all I have to say. Let's talk about epigenetics
Chuck and go Joshua's first talk about the genome. I
heard a computer reference analogy that I thought was was
pretty spot on. If you think of the genome as

computer hardware, then the epigenome would be the software that
tells the computer what to do and when to do it.
But in this case, the epigenome tells your cells what
to do, what kind of cells to be, when to
activate or deactivate. So like I guess every cell or yeah,
the d n A and every cell in the human

body has the exact same DNA. You have like half
of your mother's and half of your father's when it
comes together and gives you your d n A. Right, Um,
And if you look at the DNA and every cell
from a uh, the kind of cell that makes up
your fingernail, what would that be a carat in a
site okay, to a sperm cell? Right, very very specialized

type of cell. They all have the same d n A,
They have the same genes in there um, But what
makes them different and what makes a carat in a
site and a sperm cell Those things are the the
tags on those genes. So some are turned off, some
are turned on, and in a specific combination you have
either a cretin, a site or sperm cell, or a

neuron or a cell that makes up your eyeball, all
of that stuff. So it's essentially it's a chemical tag
that literally changes the physical structure of your genome. So
it'll bind tightly, let's say, to an inactive UH gene
and make it unreadable, or it'll stretch out an active
gene and make it really accessible, physically changing it. And

epigenetics means above the genome because these tags, these they
are called methyl tags, which is what one hydrogen and
two carbon carbon and hydrogen bundles. Yeah, okay, so it's
a really group. It's a really simple um compound UM.
But they they they attached to the gene and a

place where other proteins or enzymes normally would attach to
activate it. So basically what they do is block a
gene from being activated and they can silence them. Yeah,
so it's like a light switch. Literally you can turn
off some genes and turn off others. UM and the
the honey bee actually is is a pretty good demonstration
of this. Did you read about honey bees? Okay, so

you've got a worker bee, right, which is a sterile,
kind of mindless um B that just does what it's
supposed to do. Agreed. Hey, I'm all down with may Day,
all right? Uh uh with um? A queen bee you
have this, Uh, First of all, she can reproduce, she
goes and kills other rival queens. She does um kind

of all sorts of other stuff that a worker bee
isn't capable of doing. Um. And what they found was
a queen bee queen bee larva raised in this royal jelly, right,
which worker bees secrete from their their heads. It's just
nutrient rich jelly, so the larva grows in it. And
what they found, Yeah, it sounds kind of good, doesn't that?
Just because of the jelly part. What they found was that, um,

the royal jelly has it adds a methyl tag to
the queen bee larva's d n m T three gene.
And this gene is like literally the on off switch.
If this gene is on, it goes to the default
worker be right right. If it's off, then all the
genes that that make a queen be a queen bee

are able to be turned on. Crazy, isn't it so?
Epigenetics happens in bees as well and mice. Yes, the
they've done a lot of studies with mice obviously in
the a goody gene in these mice, and they would
they experiment with um with these mice affecting basically turning
on and off the epigenetic switch. So an unmethylated gene

would affect the mouse's size and weight and then and
then coat color. It makes them real fat and like yellow, yeah,
instead of skinny and brown. Have you seen one of
these things? Yeah, they're huge. They should all be named Wilburg.
The cool thing is though they showed the difference between
the skinny brown one and the fat yellow one. But

then they also did experiments where they did half and half,
like turned on half of them and turned off half
of them, and they literally showed him in a sequence.
I don't know if you saw this picture, but they
went from fat yellow to skinny brown, and in between
they got thinner and with spotted coats along the way,
crazy like yellow and brown spotted coats. That specific. Yeah,

and the one of the ways that they have found
that they can manipulate these what is it A goody
goody gene and these mice that I guess our bread
specifically for this gene to be easily observed or something
to um is through diet. So they've actually taken a
goody jeen mice mothers who are pregnant fed him a

bunch of UM B vitamins in their diet. Yeah, soy
is a really easy, easy grab for B vitamins. Uglie. Right,
Um fed these these pregnant, big fat yellow, ugly mice
B vitamins and their kids came out that that healthy,
skinny brown right. Um. They had identical moms with the

same like a goody gan, same upbringing, shame everything. Just
fed them in the normal mouth diet without vitamin B
and they had the big fat yellow kids. So diet
is a really big factor in epigenetic changes. Like, let's
think about this for a second. Okay, what what Chuck
and I are talking about right now is that science

has found evidence that you can change the genetics of
your children by eating B vitamins or by being abused
when you're pregnant. Well, see that's what gets me. Some
of the diet like makes a little bit of sense,
but the fact that an environmental stimulus placed on your

mom or even your grandparents can affect your children or
grandchildren something you didn't even experience at all. It's kind
of unfair. And actually, I have to tell you, the
more I study this, the more worried I am for
my own child or children. Like. Really, what they're finding
is the decisions that you make, especially at a young
fish age, are going to affect several generations because these

what you're doing is adding methyl taps. What we're talking
about is pretty much the definitive answer to the nature
and nurture debate. And what we're finding is both you
have nature, which is your genes, and they're very much active,
but you have nurture, which is the environment. Whether it's diet,
whether it's stress um, whether it's lack of exercise. Your

body responds to these changes by saying, okay, all right,
well then we need to If you're gonna lay around
and be fat, then we have to we have to
deactivate this gene. We will punish your grandkids, and your
grandkids who are trying to be normal are going to
be fat little kids that have live you know, shortened lives.
And this is where it came from, right, Chuck, wasn't
there there was a study in Sweden that kind of

broke this ground. Yeah, didn't they find that? Um, it
was a very isolated group of people in Sweden, and
at the time they were very isolated at least where
they couldn't get help from the outside world, very very readily.
And I think they studied the famine in that right. Well,
they the famine affected the generations afterwards. Well, they had

like feast or famine. It was like an agricultural town.
And they looked at these agricultural records that this town
kept for some reason, like really detailed records for throughout
the nineteenth century, and some years there was nothing and
people starved death. The next year there was everything. And
they found that the grand parents, the grand fathers, um

who feasted and starved within a year of one another. Um,
their grandkids lived in average of thirty two years shorter
or less. Then it's the same the grandkids of the
same people who didn't have that kind of feast or
famine experience in the same town around with the same

socioeconomic conditions. So yeah, that's three generations right there, right. Yeah,
did you hear about the Angelman syndrome and the Prodavadi syndrome.
No to they I saw that actually it was a
PBS documentary. The it's called The Ghost in Your Genes.
Did you watch that, dude? It's on YouTube. It's in five,

I think five or six sections of ten minutes a piece.
It's a full show. Mind blowing. Uh. They found that
there's there's these two different syndromes and I won't get
too deep into what they are, but Angelman syndrome and uh,
Prida Villi syndrome is what it's called. And they found
the Italian proddy. Sorry I dropped the ball there. Uh. Basically,

what causes each of these is a missing piece of
DNA and it can cause two different disease. What they
found it and cause to these two different diseases, they're
completely unrelated depending on which parent it came from, which
missing uh part of the gene it came from. So basically, uh,
it's as if the gene knew where it was coming from,

like gene imprinting. The gene had a memory that, oh,
it came from the father, so you're gonna have Angelman syndrome,
or it came from the mother, so you're gonna have
proda eility. Right, And this is a relatively recent discovery.
We were talking about them looking at agricultural records of
the nineteenth century in Sweden. That was a doctor named
Dr Lars olov Bygren, but he was working in the

mid eighties and he didn't really start to lay the
foundation of epigenetic research until the mid to late nineties.
So this is a very new field. But what they're finding,
and what Chuck was just saying, is that your parents
can pass on these epigenetic changes that happened within themselves, right, Um,

and your grandparents can too. But this isn't supposed to happen.
What happens when an egg and a sperm meat, right,
and it's like, hey, here's half, here's my DNA, here's
my DNA, right, and they get together. Um. There is
actually a process where these specialized cells go through and
basically clean the d n A of methyl tags. But

they found that not all methyl taps get cleaned off,
so diet can affect certain genes. These methyl taps can
be passed down. Um, and and with abuse as well.
Uh have you heard about PTSD? Yeah down, Yeah, They
covered that in the in that special as well. They
did a test with pregnant women who were in New

York at the time of nine eleven. Did you hear
about this one? Yeah, this is really recent study, right, Yeah,
And they basically found that pregnant women the experience that
were pregnant at the time the towers came down and
experienced post traumatic stress disorder. They found that their babies
had lower levels of cortisol, just like their moms did,

which helps you deal with stress, helps you how you
deal with stress. So these little babies inherited, basically inherited
post traumatic s disorder from their mothers. In the and
um cortisol it's a hormone and it would be produced
by a gene or expressed by a gene, and how
much or how little is express depends on whether that

gene is silenced, whether it's altered. And that alteration comes
from metal tags which can be passed down, so PTSD
can be passed down, right, Yeah. And they're what they're
speculating now that and this is obviously speculation because these
kids are still young, but they're speculating that it's gonna
happen to their kids as well, and that's gonna be
the real like gold nugget right there. There. They do

go away eventually, they think methyl tags. Well, they have
in like fruit flies. With fruit flies it's like four generations,
but fruit flies have a generation every like five minutes.
And now um. And then I think with mice it's
like forty generations or something like that. Um. And with
humans they expect it to be somewhere around three, maybe

a few more. And then the yeah, because what's happening
is our bodies are responding to environmental cues to change.
And then after those environmental cues go away, the body's like, okay,
well we can go back to normal now and get
rid of this meth al tag. So we've got nutrition. Right.
You are what you're You are what you eat, You
are what your parents eight, you are what your grandparents eight. Uh.

And then there's um things like stress which parenting right
and yeah, I think they found with mice, mice mothers
that didn't nurture their kids um or nurse their kids,
uh raise kids produced kids that were kind of jumpy
and um, I guess had the mice version of PTSD.

And they theorized that the the body had undergone an
epigenetic change to prepare these mice for stressful life because
they need to be on guard, you know, which if
you think about it, Chuck, I wrote a blog post
about us. It's possible. What we call PTSD is an
epigenetic change that says you live in an environment where
you can't just you can't relax, right, So we're gonna

make you jumpy, you're gonna be edgy, and you're going
to have flashbacks so that you're always you know, on point.
And it's the result of an epigenetic change from a
stressful event. Yeah, and the same Yeah, I think you
mentioned abuse earlier. They found that one out of every
five suicide victims was a victim of child abuse as well.

So they're still kind of theorizing now, but they think
there's a positive correlation there between, like you said, stressful
upbringing in an epigenetic change. So what else? Uh, well,
do I mean we're gonna talk about the good? What
could be good about this? Potentially? Yes, because it could
be really good. We're talking about and it's still early going.
We're talking about potentially curing things like Alzheimer's cancer, um

mental disorders, uh, multiple sclerosis, you name it, thick tonguedness,
potentially being able to cure this because you it. They
found that it's really hard to fix like a cancer cell.
And so what the doctors are thinking now is it's
really hard to to fix a cancer cell, but it's

a whole lot easier to turn these epigenetic switches on
and off, which may in turn help defeat cancer. Like
you want to get a tumor suppressing gene going yeah,
and then but you want to get a cellular growth
gene turned down a little bit, right like that, and
that you just cured cancer. Yeah. This This one doctor
put it like this. He said that, um, it's almost

like a diplomacy instead of a war, Like you'll go
tell the cell, hey, you're a good human cell. You
don't need to behave this way. You should not be
behaving this way. Yes, it's called as a citadine. It's
good to me as a citadine. It was originally marketed
for UM something else entirely probably Alzheimer's. Everything was uh,

And then they come up with they figure out that
it's actually UM turning down own these growth cells or
these growth genes, and they say, hey, how about we
use this for leukemia? Ba boom. But being there, you go, yeah,
people all of a sudden in remission where they hadn't
been before, so it's pretty pretty startling. Yeah, it's still

in the early stages though, right. Uh. The other thing
too is you can you can. It's it's easier to
fix the epigenome. That's the good news. As we move forward.
It's also a lot easier to mess up your own
epigenome diet and smoking and things like that. Yeah, there

was a the guy who was studying Sweden hooked up
with a guy who proposed, uh, the entire field of
epigenetics in and then they got together with another researcher
who was running that You remember the framing Framinghamton Farmington.
Is it farming him, farming him, framing him, framing him?

That the Massachusetts study, the heart study. Yeah, that's remember
forty years long or something, right, remember Great Britain's version
of It's like the Avon Longitudinal study. Okay, So this
guy had a friend who had access to these these files,
and what they found was that one d and sixties
six fathers in this study had started smoking around age eleven. Uh.

And so they started looking at these these guys and
found that their kids were shorter and fatter and just
generally unhealthier than other kids. Even controlling for other factors
as well. So smoking is a problems. Drugs are a problem.
Cocaine addicted mice past memory problems onto three generations of
their offspring. Yeah, it said that cocaine, especially tripp triggers

epigenetic changes that affect like hundreds of genes at the
same time. It's because memories just such a complex process.
So don't do cocaine. No, and don't smoke. It's just
a bad idea, especially at a young age. And Chuck,
there's a project underway. Remember the Human Genome Project completed

in March of two thousand, which is now exactly There
was a did you read this time article at the
end of it that the author is talking about the
epigenome project, right, and he was saying that the Human
Epigenome Project is going to make the Human Genome Project
look like the homework that sixteenth century school kids did

on their advocacies. Think about this. What they found in
the Human Genome Project is twenty seven thousand genes that
are mapped. Right, Um, just just fiddling with these combinations
increases the map that needs to be created exponentially, right,
like Domino's Pizza has twenty seven ingredients they produces, they do.

I went counting the produces eighty eight million different combinations
from seven I imagine twenty seven thousand ingredients. I'm many
different combinations is that produced. This is the scope of
the human epigenome project that's underway. Now, wow, what what
about Pizza Hut with all their like stuff crust and
eat it backwards and the ingredients are underneath your pizza

and probably even more stuff. Yeah, but I think Domino's
has more pizza because they've got like the Philly cheese
steak one and they have like the cheeseburger, the bacon cheeseburger,
which yeah they do, like the Ruben sandwich pizza that
would be very good, would be good. So epigenetics is
changing everything I think, and it's core. It's going to

it's going to point out that all of our understanding
of medicine is just an odd way of describing an
epigenetic change, you know, like psychology, psychiatry. I predict that
our future and complete understanding of humanity is going to
be a combination of sociology and epigenetics. So we we

thought we were onto something with me or neurons, but
forget what we said, not just kidding. Actually, yeah, I
think that you could probably explain that epigenetically and with
sociology as well. Have you heard of this guy, Dr
Bruce Lipton. He is, he's got a documentary out called
The Living Matrix, And at first I was reading and
I was like, Wow, this guy's really onto something. But

then I started reading other people saying this guy's a quack. Yeah.
He basically he's a big epigenetics guy, but he thinks
that your brain can essentially change your genetic expression by
manipulating the epigenome like concentrating. He thinks the placebo effect
could potentially be explained by this, and like spontaneous remission
and cancer spontaneous combustion. Spontaneous remission obviously is when you

go into remission with no known cause, not from you know,
any treatment, And he says this is explained because you're
you have a profound change in your perception of your
life and what life is all about, and that can
potentially alter the epigenome. Well, you could also to make
a case that this guy, what this guy is talking
about is decreasing stress, which stresses freaks havoc on us

and could create metal tags and alter gene expression. So
maybe he's just using a quacky way of describing lowering
your own stress levels by increasing self confidence. It's interesting
when you see these people, though, and you watch a
YouTube video and you think, oh my gosh, that's the
secret to the future, and then you see all these
other people go that guy is such a quack. Yeah,

but at the same time you could you could say, well,
maybe those other people are unmaginative. Good point. So if
you want to learn more about epigenetics, I strongly recommend
University of Utah's website it Um have you been on it? Chuck?
Why didn't you recommend that to me? Did you see it?
I don't think so I did. There's like a month

ago when uh, yeah, you can turn up gene expression,
turn it down. There's like, um, a lot of foods
that you should eat if you want to alter yourself epigenetically,
especially if you're pregnant, or go to YouTube and watch
the Ghost in your Jeans. PBS is literally mind blowing,
well not literally people, obviously, literally it's talk about changing

your genetic expression. And if you want to read some
very beautiful prose on epigenetics, uh shock full of flight
simulator references read uh, how epigenetics works by typing epigenetics
in the handy search bar how stuff works dot com,
which means it's time for listener mail. Yes, indeed, Josh, Josh,

you remember Sarah the amazing eleven year old fan it's
not eleven anymore, who captured our hearts when she first
emailed early on in the days of podcastings to do
like she was one of the first fans. Actually, yeah,
Sarah the amazing eleven year old fan is now Sarah
the amazing thirteen year old fan. Gosh, I feel so
old now. We shouldn't do this a while. Well, yeah,

and we should keep like once a year, we should
update people on Sarah's age. And then when she graduate,
if we're still doing this in five years, when she
graduates college, we should go like or a high school.
We should go to her graduation, or we should give
the commencement speech. She should I call valedictorian. Well yeah,
and then the prince would be like, who are you guys?
Can we get security in here? We'll say I'm the valedictorian.

He's a salutatorian. What do you mean? Uh? So this
comes from Sarah? She checked someone that's from time to time,
and she's still just as cute at thirteen. She's not
all bratty now that she's a teenager. Hello to some
of my favorite people. Today. I earned some strange looks
from people about my knowledge of legos or Lego bricks.
I also tried making a sphere of Lego but I

couldn't figure it out. Also, today's my birthday. I'm really
excited that I'm finally a teen Yahoo. Do you remember
what I asked for and what she asked for? She's
got a blog now, and she asked if one of
us could comment on her blog. And I went to
her blog and commented in Her blog is basically her
and her little friend talking back and forth to each

other about stuff. It got their eyes with hearts. No, well,
I don't think you can do that, but it is
really really cute. And um, I'm actually gonna encourage people
to go to her blog. I hope she gets mad traffic.
And her blog, Josh is Sarah loves Australian Commercials dot
webs dot com. And here's the clincher. It is s
A S A r w H. There's no www right

now And she missed spells Australian all over the place.
She spells it A U S t r A I
l I A n. So it's like aus trail I
N hey I A n right, so spell the whole
U r l h t t P colon slash slash

s A r A h l O v e s
A U s t r A I l I A
n c O M m e r c e i
A l s dot webbs w e b s dot com.
And I hope people go back there and check it out.
I hope so too. Um So she turned thirteen. She says,

by the way, can you please not tell Kristin, Molly
or Katie that I think you guys are better than them.
I think that would be kind of like bragging. It
would be kind of like bragging, which is why we
would never do. We would never tell them, and they
I'm sure they don't listen to our shows, so they'll
never know. And then she closes, and this is Emily
just thought, this is the cutest thing ever. Well, so long,

farewell our al vetter, saying goodbye, A do a do
to you and you and you, And then in the
seas she says, in case you didn't know that was
from the sound of music. So long farewell. Yeah, and
and that's one of Emily's favorite Well, you should send
the rest of it. Dudde doe do you and you
and you so Sarah, Happy birthday. You're awesome and you're

a dedicated fan. We just think you're super cool. And
good luck with the blog if you do learn how
to do eyes with heart. We want to know, Sarah,
Happy birthday to you. If you want to become a
fan who has captured our hearts, send us something interesting.
We want to uh, we want another super fan and
be a cute little kid. Otherwise you're not gonna culture

that helps as well. Broken English doesn't hurt too true.
You can send an email to Stuff podcast at how
stuff works dot com for more on this and thousands
of other topics. Is it how stuff works dot com.
Want more how stuff works, check out our blogs on

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