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Lifestyle You Lead Today May Affect Generations to Come
Date:6/8/2011

By Dennis Thompson
HealthDay Reporter

WEDNESDAY, June 8 (HealthDay News) -- A new twist has been thrown into the classic debate of "nature versus nurture" through the budding field of epigenetics, which has found that nurture can alter the genetic nature of both an individual and the person's descendents.

Epigenetics researchers investigate the ways that environmental factors -- pollution, emotional stress, physical trauma -- can affect the way people's genetic blueprint is expressed through their physical and emotional development.

"Decades ago, we looked at genes as being the hard-wired plan for how the body develops and functions," said Dr. Steven Dowshen, chief medical editor of KidsHealth at the Nemours Center for Children's Health Media and a pediatric endocrinologist with the Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, Del. "That still is the case. However, we didn't understand until we knew more about this concept of epigenetics how environmental factors can change how those genes work."

Doctors studying epigenetics also have found evidence that a person's current environment can affect the health of their progeny, with today's events echoing decades down the family tree.

The word "epigenetics" provides a clue to the concept, as the Greek prefix "epi" means "over" or "above." Researchers have found that environmental factors essentially can flip an on or off switch in a person's genetics, affecting not only that person's development but also how genetics are transmitted in the person's eggs or sperm.

"Epigenetic mechanisms don't alter the actual DNA structure, but they do alter the DNA molecule in a way that modifies the amount of biologic information that will be transmitted by the gene," said Rachel Yehuda, a professor of psychiatry and neurobiology and director of the traumatic stress studies division at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. "Imagine if you'r
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