Environmental Factors Change Gene Expression

The widely held notion is that DNA is fixed: We receive half of our genes from our mothers; the other half, our fathers. But the story doesn’t end there. DNA is actually malleable. The DNA we get from our parents can be changed. Now, we can’t change brown eyes into blue eyes or grow a few inches taller in adulthood. Rather, we can change the expression of the genes we were born with in ways that influence our health.

Think of the human genome as an ongoing light show — an endless flickering of different genes lighting up in an on-off sequence at various times. In The Gene Therapy Plan, I explain how epigenes, chemical tags overlying DNA, play a significant role in “illuminating” genes by turning them either on or off. Epigenes transmit signals they receive from the environment to the underlying genome. Yet, there are other molecules called transcription factors that partake in this orchestrated chain of events.

Similar to epigenes, transcription factors activate or deactivate genes. Transcription factors are proteins that bind to DNA “docking” sites and modify the expression of nearby genes. Toronto researchers explored a diverse and abundant group of transcription factors called C2H2-ZF that are involved in human development and disease. Composing around three percent of our genes, these proteins are highly variable and diverse and difficult to study because they differ significantly among organisms.

What the researchers did find was quite interesting: These proteins in humans were developed in large part in a response to prevent mutations due to selfish DNA that existed in our ancestor genome. Selfish DNA like viruses uses its host cellular machinery to multiply itself and randomly insert itself into the human genome in ways that cause mutations.

When selfish DNA gets passed on from parent to offspring, they are called endogenous retro-elements (EREs). So the development of transgenerational faulty DNA precipitated the formation of C2H2-ZF transcription factors. Today, EREs, which are millions of years old, are no longer harmful as they once were. And now they serve as guideposts for C2H2-ZF to monitor nearby genes.

Although the heterogeneity of C2H2-ZFs makes it difficult to study and an impractical health-promoting therapy, the science behind it demonstrates that malleability of the human genome. This study further illustrates how our environment, over time, can help to shape the expression of our genes. And nutrition is one of the ways in which we can make a huge impact on our health.

Using the science of nutritional epigenetics, we can influence our health through the foods we eat and the beverages we drink. Nutrition can be used to reverse the damaging effects that our environment has on our health.

We are all exposed to toxins inside and outside our bodies: For one, the process of converting the sugar we get from the foods we eat into energy for our cells results in the formation of cell-damaging free radicals. Free radical damage creates an unstable state wherein cells steal electrons from other cells in an attempt to stabilize themselves. While the body has natural stores of antioxidants, these molecules can become depleted quickly as they work to defend the body against a host of toxins in our food, air, water, and soil.

The buildup of toxins without the defense of the body’s detoxifying and immune systems results in the activation of proinflammatory genes and tumor-activating genes. To replenish the body’s antioxidant and detoxifying agents, we must consume healthful foods that inhibit the activation of disease-causing genes and support our natural defense systems.

In The Gene Therapy Plan you’ll find a plethora of dietary recommendations that promote health and longevity. Through nutrition, chronic conditions like heart disease, cancer, obesity, diabetes, and unhealthy aging are all targeted through nutritional epigenetics — the science that describes how macronutrient and micronutrient balance affects health. Foods contain nutritional darts, if you will, that hone in on chronic inflammation, toxins, and free radical damage. To fight against disease and promote health, eat foods that contain bioactive compounds that fight inflammation and free radical damage at the level of our DNA. Some of those wholesome nutrients are quercetin (apples), resveratrol (grapes), curcumin (turmeric), and squalene (olive oil).

You’ll find more nutritional and lifestyle recommendations in The Gene Therapy Plan and in my newsletter.


Najafabadi HS, Mnaimneh S, Schmitges FW, et al. C2H2 zinc finger proteins greatly expand the human regulatory lexicon. Nat Biotech. 2015 02/18/online;advance online publication.
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