What is epigenetics?
Increasingly, scientists are understanding how our environment can affect our genes. It’s a field called epigenetics which literally means ‘on top of genetics’. It looks at the information layered on top of the sequence of letters that makes up our DNA.
Imagine our DNA sequence as an instruction manual on how to make our body. Epigenetics is like a highlighter used to mark the most important bits of the manual as well as the bits it's OK to ignore.
Epigenetics is also often described as the process by which certain genes in our DNA become switched on or off by something we experience.
So, the discovery that what we eat and the way we live our life has an impact on our epigenetics, and therefore our genes, means it can also affect the genes of our descendants as our DNA is passed on.
Healthy eating and lifestyle is important enough when it’s just ourselves we have to think about. If it’s the future of humanity… well, that's a bit more daunting. That’s why research into this area is so important. The more we can understand about how lifestyle affects our genes, the more we will be able to understand what to do more of and what to do less off.
The EpiGen Consortium is one of the largest epigenetic research projects in the world. It is a public-private partnership of researchers based in the UK, New Zealand and Singapore.
“To be involved in such cutting-edge research in such a vital and exciting field will enable us to create products that have a proven, positive impact on the health of mothers and their children”Stefan Catsicas, Nestlé’s Chief Technology Officer
Nestlé began working with EpiGen in 2011 and has recently committed CHF 22 million to a six-year research partnership. The kind of work EpiGen is doing helps us understand how much nutrition affects genetics. Researchers are looking at how the diet and lifestyles of pregnant women affect their baby’s genes. Even slight epigenetic changes can impact the future healthy growth and development of their children.
“To be involved in such cutting-edge research in such a vital and exciting field will enable us to create products that have a proven, positive impact on the health of mothers and their children,” says Stefan Catsicas, Nestlé’s Chief Technology Officer.
The research aims to improve nutrition and reduce pregnancy-related problems such as gestational diabetes. The condition affects the growth and development of children as well as the mother’s future health.
Since 2006, EpiGen has made significant discoveries in the areas of maternal and young child nutrition. Researchers have shown that a low-carbohydrate diet during pregnancy relates to chemical changes in parts of the baby’s DNA. These changes can indicate a greater risk for these young children to become overweight or obese during childhood.
This both underlines the importance of good nutrition and highlights the long-term risks if it is not provided.
This is a scientific field in its relative infancy. But already it has increased our knowledge of how the human body adapts and reacts to its environment. And it is certain to further inform the way we look after our own health, the health of our children and maybe even our children's children.