DNA: it's not destiny
October 1st 2009, 10:00
When we become ill, most of us lay the blame at the feet of our ancestors: my heart problem is like dad's, who had a dicky ticker; I'm likely to get breast cancer because it's what my grandmother died of. We look upon ourselves in a sense as victims-victims of our genetic history.
Nowadays, virtually all of medicine is built upon the notion that the blueprint of our life and health lies in our DNA, the genetic coding that supposedly holds a fixed menu of our potential for health or illness.
Medicine has accepted the neo-Darwinist interpretation of health-that each of our cells, equipped with a full pack of genes, mostly lives out a preprogrammed future. In the simplest terms, this means that genetics is destiny or, as Sylvia Plath put it, "Fixed stars govern a life".
Nevertheless, as our cover story this month shows, growing evidence, popularized by the remarkable work of biologist Dr Bruce Lipton, convincingly demonstrates that our genes, far from being a pre-determined destiny, exist much as subatomic particles do-only as a potential.
We're now beginning to understand that the environment that surrounds us-our diet, the quality of our air and water, the emotional climate of our family, the state of our relationships, our sense of fulfilment in life-has the most to do with what is ultimately expressed by our genes.
Although standard science still adheres to the notion that a cell is controlled by its nucleus, scientists are learning that it is, in fact, the outside influences filtering through the cellular membrane that actually control the cell and, consequently, the behaviour and health of the whole organism.
The membrane contains hundreds of thousands of protein receptor switches that regulate a cell's function by turning a certain gene on or off. But what prompts the turn of the switch is an environmental signal, so the final control of a gene-and whether it is activated or not-is determined by one of a myriad influences outside of our body.
A cell has no individuality without its interaction with the environment. All the influences from the outside will determine a cell's expression and how it will react within its world, and whether it will conform or be an outlaw to its fellows.
Evidence is now mounting that environmental influences affect the expression of much of our ill health, including mental illness. Indeed, far from being a genetically inspired event, even women with a family history of breast cancer are more likely to get it from an environmental insult such as hormone replacement therapy.
This, of course, has extraordinary implications for modern medicine. It makes a nonsense of genetic manipulation or, indeed, of family history as a life-and death-sentence. What the new research under-scores is that health or disease is the sum total of how we live our lives. That places the responsibility for our health squarely back on our own shoulders, not those of our parents or grandparents.