Sunday, October 23, 2011

Living conditions are reflected in your DNA

A study linking social and economic factors to genetics revealed that your living conditions during the time you grow up have an impact on the way your genetic code functions. These alterations persist during life, and are still visible long after reaching adulthood. According to the researchers, based at the McGill University in Montreal, Canada, this is the first time a study is able to link social and economic factors to DNA structures. In the nature vs. nurture debate (which basically does not exist anymore), this is an important discovery, highlighting that the environment leaves a mark on the blueprint by which we create life's components.

For their study, the researchers followed around 10.000 UK citizens, and compared the DNA of people with low and high socio-economic upbringing. Specifically, DNA methylation was assessed, which means the scientists looked at modifications of the genetic code that are able to silence particular parts of it, so it can not be translated into proteins anymore. In their study, people that grew up with high and low socio-economic upbringing had about 1252 differences in DNA methylation when they were compared to each other. In contrast, when the scientists looked at current socio-economic conditions and compared the two classes, they only found 545 changes. This shows that the environment in which you were brought up has a significantly larger influence on the alterations in genetic code than your current living situation.

By methylating DNA, a molecule called methyl is added to a part of the DNA, affecting its functionality. Factors that influence the genome from 'outside' without actually changing anything in the code, are grouped together in a research field called epigenetics. In the last 10 years, we discovered that epigenetics have a big impact on the way our genetic code is being read. These methylated alterations, along with other epigenetic editing, is heritable: you do not only inherit the actual DNA from your parents, you also get the modifications that are attached to them.

The differences in methylation between low and how socio-economic upbringing was assessed, and it was found that the genetic alterations gave people with a low socio-economic upbringing several disadvantages in life, as they found that methylation differences put them at higher risk for coronary heart disease, type II diabetes and respiratory disorders.

Epigenetic differences between social classes are intriguing, and it is not yet known what causes them. More studies are required to look in to the factors that cause the changes in DNA methylation, and how these triggers can be prevented. In addition, it is necessary to unravel the difference in actual health outcomes of the two classes, caused by these methylation differences. 

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