Epigenetics: A Paradigm Shift or Tweaking the Details?
*Designated as an Exemplary Master's Project for 2014-15*We know that our lifestyle choices and experiences can influence our health: the food we eat, the environment we live in, and the social relationships we form can all have an impact on our development and health. But what if events that occur before we are even born, during our early stages of development, or even before we are conceived, determine our health in adulthood? What if our life experiences affect the health of our future, unborn descendants? Epigenetics is a field that gives us insight into the relationship between our surrounding environment and our genetic makeup, addressing the nature-nurture interaction. Epigenetics is the study of the regulation of genes, specifically how genes are activated--or turned on--and deactivated--turned off. Environmental factors such as stress, nutrition, pollution, toxins, and many others, can affect the regulation of genes without altering the genome, and this dysregulation can lead to the development of disease states. Epigenetics describes how these environmental factors can become molecularly embodied in our cells. With this new field we must ask: to what extent (if at all) does epigenetics fundamentally change our way of thinking about human (1) mental and (2) physical health? Do new insights into epigenetic processes represent a paradigm shift, and what are the conceptual and/or practical implications of epigenetics in these fields? In order to answer these questions, I will review the research that has been done on the topic, present the current paradigms in fields associated with human health and disease, identify what constitutes a paradigm shift in science, and determine if epigenetics does in fact fundamentally change how we view human health and disease. Ultimately, I determine that the aspect of epigenetics that provides the molecular mechanisms through which nature and nurture interact is merely an extension of the old paradigm. However, the idea that epigenetic changes can be transmitted through generations is novel and does constitute a paradigm shift in our thinking about human health and disease.
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