The Developing Genome: An Introduction to Behavioral Epigenetics

The Developing Genome: An Introduction to Behavioral Epigenetics

The Developing Genome: An Introduction to Behavioral Epigenetics

The Developing Genome: An Introduction to Behavioral Epigenetics

Synopsis

Why do we grow up to look, act, and feel as we do? Through most of the twentieth century, scientists and laypeople answered this question by referring to two factors alone: our experiences and our genes. But recent discoveries about how genes work have revealed a new way to understand the developmental origins of our characteristics. These discoveries have emerged from the new science of behavioral epigenetics--and just as the whole world has now heard of DNA, "epigenetics" will be a household word in the near future. Behavioral epigenetics is important because it explains how our experiences get under our skin and influence the activity of our genes. Because of breakthroughs in this field, we now know that the genes we're born with don't determine if we'll end up easily stressed, likely to fall ill with cancer, or possessed of a powerful intellect. Instead, what matters is what our genes do. And because research in behavioral epigenetics has shown that our experiences influence how our genes function, this work has changed how scientists think about nature, nurture, and human development. Diets, environmental toxins, parenting styles, and other environmental factors all influence genetic activity through epigenetic mechanisms; this discovery has the potential to alter how doctors treat diseases, and to change how mental health professionals treat conditions from schizophrenia to post-traumatic stress disorder. These advances could also force a reworking of the theory of evolution that dominated twentieth-century biology, and even change how we think about human nature itself. In spite of the importance of this research, behavioral epigenetics is still relatively unknown to non-biologists. The Developing Genome is an introduction to this exciting new discipline; it will allow readers without a background in biology to learn about this work and its revolutionaryimplications.

Excerpt

The British Empire in North America got off to a rocky start. A metal plaque in St. John’s, Newfoundland—the easternmost spot in Canada—commemorates the landing of Sir Humphrey Gilbert, who on August 5, 1583, took possession of “this new found land in the name of his sovereign Queen Elizabeth [and] thereby founded Britain’s overseas empire.” Looking at the plaque, it is easy to imagine Gilbert’s sense of victory at his accomplishment and to imagine him returning to great fanfare in London, where he could live out the rest of his days amid an adoring public. What the plaque fails to record is that Gilbert was actually lost at sea 35 days later as he sailed home; he was never seen again.

Fortunately for the English, Gilbert’s mother had another son, Gilbert’s half-brother Walter. When his half-brother drowned, Walter was only 29 years old, but his youth didn’t stop Queen Elizabeth from granting him a charter to carry out the transatlantic expeditions Gilbert had planned and financed before his death. Just 6 months after Gilbert disappeared at sea, the queen granted Walter the right “to discover, search, finde out, and view such remote, heathen and barbarous lands, countries, and territories, not actually possessed of any Christian Prince.” Walter ultimately became such a favorite of the queen that she knighted him in the mid-1580s, which is why we have since known him as Sir Walter Raleigh.

Elizabeth’s charge to Raleigh was to establish a colony—in her words, “to inhabite or remaine, there to build and fortifie, at the discretion of the said Walter Ralegh.” Raleigh never traveled to North America himself, but an expedition he sent in 1587 did establish a colony in what is now North Carolina. But “remaine” it did not. The Roanoke Colony was founded as a collection of families with a combined population of more than 100 men, women, and children, but less than two years after the colonists were left to live off of the rich American land, ships returning to the location from England found not a soul in residence. The site did not contain any signs of distress or struggle, and to this day, no one knows for sure what happened to the colonists, which is why Roanoke is now known as “the lost . . .

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