Epigenetics is a newly emerging field in Biology and has invaded many news reports around the world over the past few years. But what exactly is epigenetics?
The term genetics describes the study of heritable changes involving DNA, which is the molecule carrying genetic information in our cells. When we reproduce, our genetic code recombines with that of our partner to create another fascinating individual. Sometimes our cells mutate and cause unwanted proliferation, which can lead to cancer. These are genetic changes, i.e. alterations in our actual genetic code. However, our bodies are not that simple and there are other changes which are heritable and do not include the change of the genetic sequence. Hence the term carries the prefix “epi” (Greek for besides, above). Factors such as the 3D-structure of our DNA, expression of genes, natural modifications such as methylations and so forth have a great influence on development and heritage. They can even be involved in the formation of diseases, which in return has drawn the attention of many pharmaceutical companies to this new field. So the good news is: we are not just the sum of our genes!
Cambridge as a place of world-class research is at the forefront of epigenetic research and the university has many outstanding research groups working in that field. The Cambridge Epigenetics Club, which meets regularly in Cambridge, has been set up for interested individuals of the university to share knowledge and bring people of the scientific field together.
Epigenetics will be hitting the news in the next few years and certainly there will be heavy debates about new strategies to tackle diseases. It is important to remember that the field aims to understand the fundamentals of life and the outcomes of the research can potentially be used to help people. Most likely there will be heavy debates on the subject. I my opinion, it is important to keep an open opinion and remember what scientist try to do. In this context, the word “Cloning” is a natural phenomenon seen in many species and only got a negative connotation when the news reported about “Dolly the Sheep” and “Designer Babies”. It is up to us as the public to decide where we want to lead society, what challenges we want to tackle in the future and how we want to use the invaluable wealth of knowledge science has to offer.
So we are not defined just by the sum of our genes. Who we are and what we are is determined by many other factors. What will be the next discovery?
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