The Van Andel Institute in Grand Rapids, Mich., recently announced they are founding a research hub for the new and exciting field of epigenetics. The better known discipline of genetics studies genes, mutations and genetic inheritance, whereas epigenetics studies chemical modification of genes that have profound effects on how genes are used by an organism. By way of analogy, genetics deals with the text we inherit from our parents, while epigenetics analyzes the notes in the margin that explain how to read the text.
Evidence from rodent models and humans are beginning to indicate that these epigenetic “notes” can be established early in childhood and then affect the way our genes are used for the rest of our lives. One tragic example comes from analyzing epigenetic marks in the brains of suicide victims. A specific hormone receptor in the brain that is involved in stress response showed measurable differences in epigenetic markings only among victims that had endured abuse as children. That means the tragic experiences these children of God lived through may have made changes to the brain that would affect the way they respond to stress for the rest of their lives.
Changes that last a lifetime are significant, but the field is starting to show that diet, drug exposure and social experiences may lead to epigenetic notes that control how genes are used for generations. In rodents, a high fat diet in males can lead to daughters that have impaired insulin secretion and glucose tolerance as compared to genetically similar brothers or cousins. That means, at least in rats, a male’s diet can lead to a predisposition to early onset diabetes in daughters because of epigenetic changes to key genes that regulate activity of the pancreas. If this is true in humans, then familial diabetes is not just nature (genes) or nurture (environment) but could be epigenetic - a fusion of the two - as well.
The lesson of epigenetics should be that our choices and actions matter more, not less.
The two examples described above, like so much of the science being published in the area of transgenerational epigenetics, display the fallenness of God’s creation. But epigenetics is not a curse, a result of the Fall. It was part of how inheritance works when God described his creation as “very good.” For example, Balb/c mice are a strain genetically destined to show antisocial tendencies, such as inflicting abuse on their pups. When three Balb/c females had birthed a litter of pups, they were placed into a communal cage. Compared to Balb/c females caring for their pups in isolation, those in community showed decreased rates of abusive tendencies (biting, stepping on) and increased signs of affectionate care (licking, grooming). These positive changes in parenting were evident in the female pups when they reproduced, even if this second generation was raised in isolation. This implies that the nurturing care they received as newborns led to changes in behavior as an adult. Remarkably, the increases in nurturing parenting were still detectable in the “grandchildren” of the mice that had raised their pups in community.
If there is even a chance these observations could carry over to humans, how then should a follower of Christ respond? One response is to teach freedom from epigenetic determinism. Even if our genes or epigenetic marks predispose us to disease, illness or sin, we are free to eat well, exercise and make good decisions. The lesson of epigenetics should be that our choices and actions matter more, not less. Another response would be to redouble our efforts to free people from destructive cycles of abuse, addiction and violence. When we do so, it may be that we are not only freeing an individual, but we could help them improve their epigenetic legacy, making a difference for their children and their children’s children. This could give a whole new meaning to the question asked by the righteous in Matthew 25, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?”