Epigenetics continues to be just freaking nuts

We know that stressful experiences can have negative biological repercussions — not just for the people who experience the stress, but also for their children. Now, there's some evidence that this transfer of stress effects might not just be due to a simple case of PTSD changing the way you raise/treat your kids. In a study that's inspired both deep skepticism and jaw-dropping awe (both with good reason) scientists were able to train male mice to fear a specific smell — and then observe that same fear/stress response to the smell in the mice's children and grandchildren. This, despite the fact that the younger generations never had contact with their trained fathers. These results are crazy enough that you shouldn't take them as gospel. But they are hella interesting and will definitely lead to a lot more research as other scientists attempt to replicate them.

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  1. Methylation is a hell of a drug.

  2. This is not the only unusual thing going on in the world of genetics. Maggie, you might want to also start keeping tabs on the phenomenon known as the "Primeval Code". Much of the information on it is in German -- including the one book which is dedicated to the subject -- but there is this very brief summary here …


    In laboratory experiments the researchers there Dr. Guido Ebner and Heinz Schürch exposed cereal seeds and fish eggs to an "electrostatic field" – in other words, to a high voltage field, in which no current flows.
    Unexpectedly primeval organisms grew out of these seeds and eggs: a fern that no botanist was able to identify; primeval corn with up to twelve ears per stalk; wheat that was ready to be harvested in just four to six weeks. And giant trout, extinct in Europe for 130 years, with so-called salmon hooks.

    Although we wouldn't know it from the science reporting which dominates today, this is actually turning out to be a very well-established observation. It has been repeated in laboratories all over the world.

    See …

    "Investigation of the Effects of Electrostatic and Magnetostatic Treatment on Plants Growths and Their Genetic Composition"

    "Electro-culture is a practice of exposing plants to strong electric fields and electric currents in order to stimulate growth. Despite some controversy and the initial erratic results the beneficial effects of electric fields on plants is now generally accepted"

    These findings raise questions. First, what does it mean for a species to go "extinct"? These findings suggest that we may have to modify our definition. Also, the suggestion in that paper there as to why this occurs -- so that plants can anticipate a thunderstorm -- fails to acknowledge the other explanation: That there was a time on this planet when the electric field was dramatically different, and that the genetics encoded it because it coincided with a period of time which was very hospitable to those former species ...

  3. SamSam says:

    Um... I don't even know where to begin. Epigenetics has certainly not been "disproved." There are a great number of studies showing that the activation or deactivation of certain genes can be passed down to offspring.

    Maybe a primer would help you? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epigenetics

    Some of the more outlandish claims don't end up holding water after deeper scrutiny, but the field as a whole is still very, very much alive. The stuff that is being discovered is amazing -- it shows how much more incredible DNA is than the simple Mendelian stuff we knew 20 years ago.

  4. SamSam says:

    I would this with a very high dose of skepticism...

    Miracle seeds produced over a decade ago that everyone mysteriously stopped working on because they were too good and would destroy the fertilizer industry? And wheat that was harvestable after four weeks instead of seven months, and no one has ever heard of this except a few Germans?

    It sounds like great material for a thriller, but you have to ask why this isn't in any peer-reviewed journals. Is the fertilizer industry even more all-powerful and secret than the oil industry?

    Edit: I forgot: you don't have a very high regard for peer-review, do you? So that argument is out. Well, then, all I can say is that believing in ideas like this just requires so much more belief. Belief that seeds have this miraculous property that no one else has ever replicated; that scientists are being forced to keep quiet about something that would feed billions of people; that no one has managed to smuggle this idea to other countries and use it etc, etc etc. It requires conspiracies in every government and every university in the world. How is that easier to believe than the notion that these people are wrong (or frauds)?

  5. Are you joking? Lamarkian heredity is, indeed, largely dead and buried. However, in the time since Darwin (brilliant guy, reading recommended), we've continued to look at those heritable factors that he was only able to posit the existence of.

    And, unshockingly enough, complex chemistry is complex, and what we've learned by looking at the situation with (some) knowledge of the heritable factors, what they are, and how they work, turns out to be more complex than the behavior that caused Darwin to posit their existence in the first place.

    Gene flow: Not always neatly down the family tree, thanks to viruses, plasmids, and other oddball stuff.
    Gene regulation: Whole huge can of worms there...
    Methylation: Happens all the time, and you can use any of a number of methylating reagents to see what happens in cases where it doesn't naturally occur (just try not to methylate any grad students, some of those agents are pretty feisty).

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