Day 206. DNA ain’t DNA

In March 2013 on March 6, 2013 at 9:52 pm


As divine as they generally are, my kids are at their most annoying when they remind me of me.

One lies awake in bed at night, over-thinking everything. Another has a foul temper and can snap with no warning. The third can’t even wait the few seconds it takes for a new YouTube clip to load.

“Just relax! Stay calm! Be patient!”

I yell, knowing full well that with my genes firmly encased in every single living cell of their bodies they don’t have a hope in hell.

That was until yesterday…when I learnt something new about DNA.

The lesson came in the form of a podcast – a brilliant one called Inheritance made by my good friends* at RadioLab.

The general understanding about DNA – the stuff genes are made from – is that it’s an inherited template used to make proteins. According to this way of thinking, if one section of your Mum’s DNA codes for proteins which promote a short emotional fuse, and you inherit that DNA from her, chances are you’ll snap into cranky mode relatively quickly.

But now, according to the podcast, a new bit of knowledge is changing the way scientists think DNA works.

Turns out that just ’cause you have a certain section of DNA, it won’t necessarily be used to make protein. If a small sticky molecule known as a methyl group attaches itself in the right spot, that bit of DNA is blocked from the production line.

What this means is that even if you happen to have inherited your Mum’s genetic propensity towards a short temper, if you have a methyl group attached to the relevant bit of DNA you could actually end up being reasonably calm.

I should point out this temper example was entirely fabricated to make my point: the actual data on DNA and methyl groups came from studying maternal behaviour in rats.

It’s really exciting from a scientific point of view. Why? Because it means there is flexibility in the system: certain characteristics which are inherited at the level of DNA may or may not end up being displayed by your kids. This is a new way of thinking about DNA.

If I could just add or subtract a few methyl groups in my own kids, I’d be in business…

*may or may not be actual friends in real life


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