• Triple Helix

The Instructions That Instruct DNA

Written by: Pranav Mahableshwarkar ‘25

Edited by: Melinda Li ‘22

One of the most rapidly growing fields of research in the past few years is the study of epigenetic systems and mechanisms. To many, epigenetics might seem like an ambiguous science, mentioned in discussions of nature versus nurture or gene editing. Yet the understanding of epigenetics is as personal as the understanding of our very own DNA. The simplest example of this is the case of identical twins. Two people sharing the exact same DNA, and oftentimes the same growth environment, develop unique physical and personality traits due to epigenetics. On an even more personal level, epigenetics dictates how our DNA is used throughout the different stages of our development - like an on/off switch!


Before understanding the different pathways in epigenetic studies, it is important to establish the connection between epigenetics and genetics. Although everyone generally has their own unique DNA (also known as a “genome”), all human beings are still 99.99% identical in their genetic makeup. The way our bodies interact with that DNA, a large portion of epigenetics, is what results in the diaspora of people we see today. In a literal sense, “epi” means on or above in Greek, contributing to epigenetics' vague definition of involved factors beyond the genetic code. Epigenetic changes, generally speaking, are modifications to DNA that regulate whether genes are turned on or off. These involved factors can include environmental factors, age, and can even be sex-specific.

Many recent studies surrounding epigenetics have been exploring the implications of sex-specific transcriptional changes and gene control. Transcription is the process in which active genes are processed and become proteins that serve vast purposes within the body. One process that is heavily influenced by epigenetics is the immune response. A healthy immune system requires immune cells that adapt rapidly to environmental studies. A study conducted on epigenetic variability established that such “plasticity can be mediated by transcriptional and epigenetic” changes [3]. The study found that there were notable differences within neutrophils (a component of the immune system) that were dependent on sex. The study ultimately emphasized that a more complex understanding of how this variability arises is crucial in developing more targeted and advanced treatment strategies for immunological diseases.

In fact, a genetics lab at Brown University - the Larschan Lab - is exploring at a cellular level how such variation might occur. According to the Lab, the diversity in RNA molecules (the products of transcription) “shape the tissue and sex specific variation in a living organism”. Their studies track transcription factors, which cause the initiation of transcription from DNA, starting from embryonic development through later life. Different transcription factors have been shown to use the same piece of DNA to produce numerous different RNA transcripts, which result in numerous different proteins [2]. Essentially, through unknown processes of epigenetics, our bodies are able to perform different functions from the same genetic code!

The study of epigenetics even has an influence on our daily lives. Specifically, epigenetics is a driving science behind the argument of nature versus nurture. Our environment and our daily choices influence the epigenetic mechanisms that determine our growth and development. Two identical twins, if we return to our previous example, share the same DNA and are therefore identical in nature. However, their upbringing and lifestyles, which are different, influence the ways in which that identical DNA is used. Beyond humans, research is being conducted on the epigenetic impact of higher temperatures on plants as a product of climate change. For example, plants can sense the “temperature increase and adjust their morphology and development, facilitating plant cooling” [1]. This exemplifies the on/off simplification of epigenetics!

Epigenetic modulation [5]

Ultimately, epigenetics is a broad and encompassing field. Although it may seem abstract, epigenetics is something that influences us all through our daily choices from food, to exercise, and our environment. Simply put, epigenetics shapes who we are, and understanding its complex mechanisms can provide us with invaluable guidance on our quest to become healthier.

Works Cited

[1] Zhang, Nannan. 2021. “Epigenetic Mechanism Helps Plants to Live under High Temperatures----Chinese Academy of Sciences.” English.cas.cn. Retrieved April 8, 2022 (https://english.cas.cn/newsroom/research_news/life/202107/t20210715_275934.shtml).

[2] Ray, Mukilika, and Erica Larschan. 2014. “Splicing and Transcription.” The Larschan Lab. Retrieved April 8, 2022 (https://www.larschanlab.com/splicing-and-transcription).

[3] Kelly, Theresa K., Somayeh Ahmadiantehrani, Adam Blattler, and Sarah E. London. 2018. “Epigenetic Regulation of Transcriptional Plasticity Associated with Developmental Song Learning.” Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 285(1878):20180160. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2018.0160

[4] GEN Staff Writer. 2016. “Epigenetic ‘Off’ Switch Keeps Motor Learning ‘On.’” GEN - Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology News. Retrieved April 08, 2022 (https://www.genengnews.com/topics/omics/epigenetic-off-switch-keeps-motor-learning-on/).

[5] Brechbuehl, Larissa. 2020. “Epigenetics: Manipulating Genes through Nutrition and Sport.” Aurumfit.com. Retrieved April 8, 2022 (https://www.aurumfit.com/blog/epigenetics-manipulating-genes-through-nutrition-sport).

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