Can the environment affect your DNA?

In 2007, before I started my journey to eat better and take care of my health, I watched this program on PBS and tucked the information away in the back of my mind. When I started drastically changing my diet my mind kept returning to this program and I began to wonder about the affects of the chemicals in and on our food. I began to think about our genes as our "hardware" and the epigenome as our "software". You are born with the genes you have, but can the environment affect your software, the signals that turn those genes on and off? This PBS special completely changed my opinion about food and our environment. I have watched people drench their lawns in chemical sprays and days later their children are rolling through the grass. How is this affecting our children? I've heard people claim chemicals are safe, only to be recalled, or banned after a problem occurs. Take a look at history. You had DDT, PCB's, BPA, and now atrazine. Boric acid was a food additive until it was found to be toxic. There are now links to hyperactivity and artificial food dyes, and a link to nitrates and cancer. Recently in California manufacturers of soda were going to be required to put a cancer label on their soft drinks, because the "caramel color" is a known carcinogen. Instead of reformulating the soda and removing the coloring agent, they decided to lower the level and make it within the legal limits, thus not requiring the cancer label. Why not remove it, or find another option? I'm still shocked that the caramel color was not produced by the heating of sugar! 

I spoke with a doctor at the University of Minnesota and she told me that during conception there is an average of 20 to 30 genetic changes, or mutations that occur in utero. Without these genetic variations evolution would not occur. These can be things as simple as the size, or shape of your ear, to things that are far more serious that affect your health. Researchers are finding that many environmental factors can cause these changes. The things you eat while pregnant, whether you smoke, or drink, your exposure to chemicals, etc.

Here is an excerpt from the transcript 'The Ghost In Your Genes':

MOSHE SZYF (McGill University): We have this very, very static genome, very hard to change. It could be only changed by really dramatic things like nuclear explosions or, you know, hundreds of thousands of years of evolution. On the other hand, we have the dynamic environment that changes all the time. And so what there is here is an interface between the highly dynamic world around us and the highly static genome that we have. Epigenome is an in-between creature, built in a way, to respond to changes around us.

Here is the link to the transcript put out by PBS in 2007. I must warn you, if you don't find this fascinating it will be a very, very slow read, but I did touch on a few of the highlights above.
Here is a link to a video by the same name, but it is a BBC production about Epigenetics.

On a side note, I recently found out about a startup that will map your DNA for $299. The site is and the co-founder is Anne Wojcicki who is married to Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google. I've been poking around the site and it is really interesting, including the work they've been doing on Parkinson's research. I'm not sure what implications it may have psychologically to know what risks you may have, but it may give a person the power to make lifestyle changes. Maybe I'll have the courage to do it someday.


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