Genetics + Nutrition Science/Public Health

My declared major started as nutrition science and now it is interdisciplinary public health which is a social science major. I would say my field understands evolution and human variability exactly as it is described in this class. My introductory chemistry class touched just briefly on it and the origins of life. My introductory anthropology class we watched a movie on genetic diversity and how race is a biologically invalid concept when what we are discussing is really phenotypes (race as it is used today is a cultural construct). My first biology class delved into this subject and at least a third of the class material involved attempting to understand the mechanisms of genetics. I think this class builds upon all of those previous classes and I was quite interested to know more about the intergenerational effects of epigenetics from our week two material.

As far as evolution this week’s material was reinforcement of information I have already been instructed on. However this week’s material gave me a slightly new perspective on human variability. I thought it was interesting to think about geographic information being imprinted on your genes so a person can see where their relatives lived and migrated from like the migration map of all our ancestors on that National Geographic page. That interested me thinking about how disease risk and diseases suffered by people’s family may be playing a risk factor in their current health by leaving a mark on their genetics. It made me think of nurturing childhoods or neglectful parents and what health risks that may have left on their genes expressing as inability to handle stress, lowered social engagement, or predisposition to diseases triggered by extreme stress on the body like stroke or heart attack.

It made me laugh to think how spectacularly less useful mapping the human genome was than we thought it was going to be, as far as understanding human function and patterns of disease. The material helped to remind me that epigenetics is a new science and has yet to pay off on it’s promise of understanding an individual’s genome and providing specific, actionable interventions to improve the health of patients today. I can feel the pressure in the nutrition/health sector for epigenetics to be the most advanced form of biohacking yet invented. People want to be provided with an individually tailored simple and clear blueprint to a healthy, functioning body, but the science to understand and do that does not yet exist, and I don’t think it helps anyone to pretend that it does or is ready to do so. It seems important to discuss with such patients having more realistic expectations of what epigenetics can and can’t do and how that relates to lifestyle modification they can make today.

I think the most fascinating moment for me was the video where they were talking about how what/when your grandparents were under/over-fed is imprinted in your genes. It was so interesting to think that at different points in the lives of your grandfather or grandmother you can see in your genes how their diet affects your health now, it reminds me of reading tree rings to see the past of a tree but the rings are in our genes from a lifetime we didn’t even live, mind blow!

4 thoughts on “Genetics + Nutrition Science/Public Health

  1. Hey, really enjoyed the post. I agree with what you said about having so many classes in the past that touch on evolution. It seems like I’ve learned the same things over and over again, yet it never really seems unimportant. I think that’s just a testament to how crucial evolution is the different fields and specialties of science. I also really enjoyed that National Geographic map and the idea that you can see where your relatives migrated from. After all the same basic evolution lessons, this is exciting because it practically applies what we’ve learned so far about evolution to our daily lives. The only observation I do have is that it seems you were being quite negative in regards to the human genome project. It does seem that the potential for this project in the near future was over-hyped, and although the project is “done” by some standards, I think the work in epigenetics can still be a huge benefit for many, just not as magical as we thought it would be.

  2. I really liked your point about how our grandparents genes affect our health now. I actually have to deal with this genetic. My grandparents came from Ireland, as everyone knows, the basic diet was the potato. Well, most Irish people suffer from Celiac Disease, which is a disorder in the small intestine that causes damage when wheat, barley, and rye products are eaten. I believe I read somewhere, 1 in 100 Irish people have this disorder. The Irish had farmed small tracts of sandy land, where potatoes could grow on easily, and could sustain enough food for their families. The Irish lived on potatoes for thousands of years. When blight destroyed the potato crop in the 1840s, the Irish had to switch to wheat, and their bodies could not produce the enzyme to digest gluten properly. So, I have inherited this wonderful gluten-free diet from my grandparents. Gotta love corn!!

  3. Hi Diana,

    I also thought the effects of epigenes and how nurturing your mother is during childhood were very interesting. One thing that I kept thinking of while watching the videos on epigenetics was that people in low income and more stressful environments have more health issues. I always assumed that this was because they could not afford to go to the doctors and take care of their health issues early on, however I have a newer perspective on it now. I believe epigenetics could play a role because of the more stressful environment they grew up in. Just like how a mother being more nurturing has effects on health later in life, a mother in a low income area may not have had time to be as nurturing as a mother who did not have to worry about money so this could contribute to the health issues that people in those areas often experience. Like you said, it all really is mind blowing!

  4. Hi Diana
    I also study Nutrition and I agree with you when you say a lot of people want epigenetics to be this advanced sector. Especially if say diet can affect the way genes are turned on and off, which is plausible as epigenetics deals with environment and someone’s diet is exactly that. Like the grandparent’s diet example from the video and that you used.
    However, I would not necessarily say the human genome project has not been useful. For instance, there is a database (actually a number of databases) known as UCSC that has data on human genome and it is actually really useful. For one thing genetic markers for diseases have been found and located. One well known example is the BRCA1/2 genes that cause breast/ovarian cancer at a higher mortality rate compared to other breast cancers as they occur at a younger age. Because of the HGP someone’s genome can be analyzed to see if they are susceptible to cancer. And this is just one example of many. I will say that we have a lot to learn as there are 3 billion bases and 23 thousand genes and then tack on variability and linkage analysis whole genome sequencing actually takes time, especially when compared to say bacterial genomes which are much smaller. But still the HGP has done a lot for the field.
    Overall great post really got me thinking!

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