Beyond Personal Health

Why Genomics Matters to Our Community

As scientists continue to unravel the mysteries of the genome, they’re learning that it’s not just traits – like having a nose like your dad – that get passed down from generation to generation, but sometimes experiences do, too.

In the words of the American Academy of Pediatrics: The genome remembers

So, if your great-grandmother lived through a famine, then you may have certain genes in your own body that still shows the impact of that famine.

The study of how the environment impacts the genome is called epigenetics (see box, at right). 

But it doesn’t have to be a major event like a famine that can change the genome. What your great-grandparents ate, how much exercise they got, how much stress they endured, and where they lived, all could have played a role in the genome you have now.

Doctors and researchers believe that epigenetics – what genes are turned on or off by environmental factors and stress – plays a role in numerous chronic health conditions including obesity, asthma, ADHD, diabetes, and mental health disorders.

This is why genomics matters to our community. It matters when people live in safe and healthy environments and have access to nutritious foods, physical exercise, good education, and jobs. The stress that happens without those things can end up changing genomes – and causing poor health – for many generations.

What is Epigenetics?

Every cell in your body has your complete genome in it. But what makes cells different from each other is the way that each cell works. To do its job right, every cell will turn on only certain genes within it at any one time. The study of this science is called epigenetics.

Think of it as a light switch. Each gene can turn the switch on or off at the appropriate time. Scientists know that a broken light switch can cause health problems. When these changes in a person's genome get passed down through generations, health issues get passed down, as well.