Understanding Epigenetics

Epigenetics is a relatively new science that studies the changes in organisms caused by modification of gene expression rather than changing the genetic code itself. The word epigenetics is of Green origin. “Epi” stands for “in addition to” genetics.

Did you ever notice that identical twins appear the same at birth, but by adulthood, they may be very different. That’s because of epigenetics. While they have identical genetics, they have changes in the expression of those genes.

This is a branch of science that has a lot of significance for pregnancies, especially those using donor eggs or sperm. Why is that? Because epigenetics looks at the way environmental factors can affect the growing fetus at the millions of areas on those genes. Think of epigenetics like using a highlighter to mark some areas, telling them to turn on, and other areas, turning them off. There are different types of epigenetic marks, and each one tells the proteins in the cell to process those parts of the DNA in certain biochemical ways. The gene sequence, the body’s instruction manual, hasn’t changed, but the expression of those genes has because only certain parts of that manual are being utilized by the cells.

Even though every cell in your body starts off with the same DNA sequence, the areas which are turned off and on are different in different types of cell – a skin cell doesn’t need to follow the same parts of the instruction manual as a liver cell. But the really interesting thing about epigenetics is that the marks aren’t fixed in the same way the DNA sequence is: some of them can change throughout your lifetime, and in response to outside influences. Some can even be inherited. This is called transgenerational epigenetics, another very interesting topic in and of itself.

Lifestyle factors might play a part in the genetic health of babies, and their babies. The beneficial effects of exercise have been known for generations, but the mechanisms are still surprisingly hazy. However, there’s mounting evidence that changes to the pattern of epigenetic markers in muscle and fatty tissues are involved. Since IVF treatment is a particularly conscious form of conception, epigenetics is highly relevant. IVF patients are, after all, uniquely motivated and anxious to achieve a pregnancy. Lifestyle changes? They’ll do them if it helps. The battle against negative epigenetics could start with fertility patients.

People receiving donated eggs and sperm have traditionally resigned themselves to the fact that their babies would not take after them. But that’s not quite true thanks to epigenetics. The uterine environment, stress levels, diet during pregnancy and other lifestyle factors may influence the way your baby’s genes are expressed. If you have a donor-egg or sperm child, it could mean your baby may take after you, after all.