If genetics was the 20th century’s major scientific revolution, epigenetics appears to be the big revolution for the 21st.
Epigenetics refers to codes, processes and functions “above” genetics, that control and regulate the genetic code: a “code above the code,” as it were. Unlike a simple DNA strand, the epigenetic code has a multitude of players that scientists are still struggling to understand. For a good introduction, watch this 12-minute video on YouTube; for more depth, read the book The Mysterious Epigenome: What Lies Beyond DNA by Woodward and Gills (available from the C.S. Lewis Society and Amazon.com).
One thing is becoming clear; DNA is just a bit player in a much vaster array of information. The big story now is what controls and regulates the DNA. Many things in the nucleus once considered “junk” are turning out to be the stars of the show. In addition, the findings are becoming more and more difficult to explain by neo-Darwinian mechanisms. Even more startling, epigenetics is undermining some key Darwinian principles.
The sheer number of news articles on epigenetics prevents in-depth coverage of any one, but what follows is a sampling of exciting finds in this vast, rich field of research.
Aging and epigenetics: Let’s begin with one close to home: aging. “Epigenomes of Newborns and Centenarians Differ: New Clues to Increasing Life Span,” announced Science Daily in bold red type, alongside a photo of a grandfather holding an infant. A new study shows defects due to mutations not just to genetic code base pairs, but to some of the epigenetic marks like methyl tags that help switch genes on and off. “The results show that the centenarian presents a distorted epigenome that has lost many switches (methyl chemical group), put in charge of inappropriate gene expression and, instead, turn off the switch of some protective genes.” Understanding these epigenomic processes will, obviously, be vital to improving the health and longevity of every human who gets older….
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