Genetic burden

You can train your genes

Our genes are what they are and cannot be changed. Or can they? According to Marianne Rots, head of the research group epigenetic editing at UMCG, your lifestyle can influence your genes. The food you eat, whether you work out, smoke, or drink: it all affects what goes on in your body.
By Leoni von Ristok / Translation by Sarah van Steenderen / Illustration by Kalle Wolters


Our genetic code is set in stone. But Marianne Rots, head of UMCG’s epigenetic editing research group, proposes that we can influence what they do in our body through our behaviour.

Epigenetics is an operating system for genes. A system of switches can turn your genes off or on, or strengthen or weaken them.

Eating well, working out and relaxing can all influence how our genes work.

With epigenetic editing, certain genes can be manipulated. In the future, it will be possible to cure certain illness.

One of the biggest challenges is that editing genes must be done with as much precision as possible to prevent negative side effects.

Reading time: 7 minutes (1,260 words)

We tend to assume that there is a difference between innate and learned characteristics. It is commonly accepted that innate traits, our genes, are fixed, and learned characteristics, such as our behaviour, are formed by our environment.

But we can influence how our genes work through our behaviour. ‘People often think that if something’s been passed down ‘genetically’ from your parents that there’s nothing you can do about that’, says Rots. ‘They’ll say it’s a fact that you have an increased chance of developing certain illnesses, for example.’

The scientific world has spent much time on trying to predict which genes can lead to which diseases. ‘But even though the entire human genome was mapped in 2000, we’re not nearly as far along in our research as we would like’, she continues. ‘Scientists have found very few genetic varieties that actually have anything to do with an increased chance of certain illnesses. If you only study genes, you can only partially explain hereditary susceptibility to certain diseases. So there has to be more to it. And that ‘more’, epigenetics, is my area.’

Self-conscious genes

Epigenetics can be seen as the operating system for genes. It is a switching device that can turn our genes off and on and make them stronger or weaker. ‘It’s like a bridge between nature and nurture, between the innate and the learned’, Rots says enthusiastically. Thanks to these switching devices, different genes are switched on in different cells. And the epigenetic ‘knobs’ can be influenced, both positively and negatively.

Running, for example, will change how hundreds of genes operate. Running regularly can therefore have a lasting positive effect on your body, according to Rots. ‘Depending on your actions – what you eat, how active you are, how well you’re able to relax – you can influence those epigenetic switches, and therefore how your genes work’, she says. ‘So you can train your genes. ‘

Genes produce proteins. Proteins have certain jobs within the body. ‘If your body only produces a small amount of a certain protein, which increases your chance of certain diseases, you could potentially train yourself to produce more of that particular protein’, says Rots. ‘We know it can be done, we just don’t yet know how.’

The various scientific disciplines are engaged in a sort of chicken-or-egg discussion. Are the genes influenced by the epigenetic switches, or are the switches determined by the genes? According to Rots, it is not a case of one or the other, but both: it depends on which stage of development you look at. ‘During your development, epigenetics is developing as well’, she says. ‘It’s still unclear how that works exactly. But it has in fact been proven that the epigenetic switches influence the genes.’

Effects of smoking

Epigenetic switches can change the way genes work in various ways. Large-scale research is mapping the differences in these epigenetics markings between sick and non-sick people. There are genes, for example, that protect our bodies from cancer. But one of the effects of smoking is that those ‘anti-cancer genes’ do not work the way they should, so smokers have a greater risk of cancer. ‘In one study, smokers took multivitamins or ate broccoli’, says Rots. ‘It was shown that certain diets resulted in the switches turning the genes back on. Quitting smoking also has a measurable positive effect.’

Another and perhaps better known example of how epigenetics work involved the children of women who got pregnant during the Dutch famine of 1944. ‘These children are more susceptible to various diseases than their siblings who born outside the famine period do not suffer from.’ While siblings are born with a fixed set of genes, circumstances greatly influence what these genes actually do. This could mean a host of new ways to fight many diseases, according to Rots.

Rots’ research group is working on a way to deliberately and efficiently intervene in how genes work. Together with Machteld Hylkema, she is investigating which genes should be manipulated in order to treat the disease of COPD. People suffering from COPD produce too much mucus, making it harder for them to breathe. ‘In the lab we have shut down the gene that controls the production of mucus’, Rots explains. ‘We have figured out how to turn genes off and on. And we are making the first steps towards permanently changing whether a gene is active or not.’

Bubble boys

Manipulating the epigenetic switches is not without risk. The devil is in the details. If the so-called epigenetic ‘writers’ and ‘erasers’ switch off the wrong cells, they run the risk of unwanted side effects.

One such case occurred with the so-called bubble boys. Children with boy in the bubble syndrome have a defective immune system, meaning they have to live their lives in quarantine, in a ‘bubble’. In the late twentieth century, a group of 20 bubble boys was administered a healthy version of the defective gene. One of the boys died, while the others were cured. Several of them developed leukaemia in response to the gene therapy. ‘This gave people a really negative view of gene therapy. But to me, that experiment was a success’, says Rots. After all, 19 boys were able to live a relatively normal life again.

But even today, side effects like these still exist. Doctors save lives by treating blood cancer with gene therapy. But this treatment sometimes results in other tumours. Apparently it remains difficult to approach genes in a precise way. Rots is using a relatively new technique: CRISPR/Cas, which should make it possible to influence the genes in more detail.

Rots is also in talks with the food industry. For example, there are plans to make butter containing substances that make protective genes work harder. ‘But we’re not even remotely at a point where we know what substances we should use in order to fight certain diseases’, says Rots. ‘But that is something that’s currently being researched.’

We do know that certain healthy foods can help protect our genes. Broccoli, nuts, berries, seeds, spinach, beets, legumes, and fatty fish, for example, can all positively influence how our genes operate.

The sky is the limit

Rots expects that there will be many benefits of epigenetic editing in the future. At some point, we will be able to effortlessly use epigenetic switches to combat various diseases, without any unpredictable side effects. ‘I know we could do so much more to help patients’, the researcher says. ‘Because this approach could be used to treat, or even completely cure, the worst diseases out there.’

In addtition to practical obstacles, certain ethical concerns have to be addressed. ‘Many people feel that messing with DNA is playing God’, Rots says. Opponents fear that people would abuse the technique and cause a lot of damage. ‘It’s certainly an important discussion’, she admits. ‘But when it comes to severe defects, I can’t help but wonder if it isn’t our duty to do everything in our power to develop this research as quickly as possible. Because if we manage it without any unwanted side effects, we’d be able to use our entire DNA to combat disease. The sky would be the limit.’



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