Epigenetics: It doesn’t mean what quacks think it means

Epigenetics. You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

I realize I overuse that little joke, but I can’t help but think that virtually every time I see advocates of so-called “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) or, as it’s known more commonly now, “integrative medicine” discussing epigenetics. All you have to do to view mass quantities of misinterpretation of the science of epigenetics is to type the word into the “search” box of a website like or, and you’ll be treated to large numbers of articles touting the latest discoveries in epigenetics and using them as “evidence” of “mind over matter” and that you can “reprogram your genes.” It all sounds very “science-y” and impressive, but is it true?

Would that it were that easy!

You might recall that last year I discussed a particularly silly article by Joe Mercola entitled How your thoughts can cause or cure cancer, in which Mercola proclaims that “your mind can create or cure disease.” If you’ve been following the hot fashions and trends in quackery, you’ll know that quacks are very good at leaping on the latest bandwagons of science and twisting them to their own ends. The worst part of this whole process is that sometimes there’s a grain of truth at the heart of what they say, but it’s so completely dressed up in exaggerations and pseudoscience that it’s really, really hard for anyone without a solid grounding in the relevant science to recognize it. Such is the case with how purveyors of “alternative health” like Joe Mercola and Mike Adams have latched on to the concept of epigenetics.

Before we can analyze how epigenetics is being used by real scientists and abused by quacks, however, it’s necessary to explain briefly what epigenetics is. To put it succinctly (I know, a difficult and rare thing for me), epigenetics is the study of heritable traits that do not depend upon the primary sequence of DNA. I happen to agree (for once) with P.Z. Myers when he laments that this definition is unsatisfactory in that it is rather vague, which is perhaps why quacks have such an easy time abusing concepts in epigenetics. As P.Z. puts it, the term “epigenetics” basically “includes everything. Gene regulation, physiological adaptation, disease responses…they all fall into the catch-all of epigenetics.” Processes that are considered to be epigenetic encompass DNA methylation (in which the cell silences specific genes by attaching methyl groups to bases that make up the DNA sequence) and wrapping the primary DNA sequence around protein complexes into nucleosomes, which are made up of proteins called histones. Indeed, in eukaroytes, the whole histone-DNA complex is known as chromatin, and the “tightness” of the wrapping of the DNA into chromatin is an important mechanism by which the cell controls gene expressions, and this “tightness” can be controlled by a process known as histone acetylation, in which acetyl groups are tacked onto histones (or removed from them). Acetylation removes a positive charge on the histones, thereby decreasing its ability to interact with negatively charged phosphate groups elsewhere on the histones. The end result is that the “tightness” of the condensed (more tightly packed) histone-DNA complex relaxes into a state associated with greater levels of gene transcription. (I realize that this model has been challenged, but for purposes of this discussion it’s adequate.) This process is reversed by a class of enzymes known as histone deacetylases (HDACs). In my own field of cancer HDAC inhibitors are a hot area of research as “targeted” therapies, although I must admit that I have a hard time figuring out how a drug that can affect the expressions of hundreds of genes by deacetylating their histones can be considered to be tightly “targeted.” But that’s just me.

I’ve only just touched upon a couple of the mechanisms of epigenetics, as discussing them all could easily push the length of this post beyond the epic lengths of even a typical post of mine; so I’ll spare you for the moment. Suffice to say that epigenetic modifications can be viewed as mechanisms that can ensure accurate transmission of chromatin states and gene expression profiles over generations. We now recognize many epigenetic processes and mechanisms that can regulate the expression of genes, and their number seems to grow every year. It’s become a hideously complex field.

The first brand of cranks to abuse epigenetics were, not surprisingly, creationists. In epigenetics and the observation that there are traits that are heritable that do not directly depend on the primary DNA sequence they saw what they thought was a “fatal flaw” in Darwin’s theory of evolution. (Never mind that Darwin didn’t even know what DNA was and nothing in his theory says what the mediator through which traits are passed from one generation to the next is.) Some even thought epigenetics as “proof” of Lamarckian evolution; i.e., the theory that existed before Darwin that postulated that acquired traits could be passed on to offspring. The most common example used to illustrate the Lamarckian concept of evolution is the giraffe, in which successive generations of primordial giraffes stretching their necks to reach higher branches of trees to feed on each passed on to their offspring a tendency to a slightly longer neck, so that over time this acquired trait resulted in today’s giraffe’s with extremely long necks. In any case, to be fair, one can hardly blame creationists for leaping on this particular concept of epigenetics as support for a form of neo-Lamarckian evolution, as several respectable scientists also argued basically the same thing, encouraging credulous journalists to label epigenetics to be the “death knell of Darwin” using breathless headlines. I even saw just such an article last week, which has the advantage of both touting arguments used to link epigenetics to CAM and arguments used linking epigenetics to the “consternation of strict Darwinists.” (More on that later.) It’s an argument that Jerry Coyne has refuted well on more than one occasion. In brief:

Their arguments are unconvincing for a number of reasons. Epigenetic inheritance, like methylated bits of DNA, histone modifications, and the like, constitute temporary “inheritance” that may transcend one or two generations but don’t have the permanance to effect evolutionary change. (Methylated DNA, for instance, is demethylated and reset in every generation.) Further, much epigenetic change, like methylation of DNA, is really coded for in the DNA, so what we have is simply a normal alteration of the phenotype (in this case the “phenotype” is DNA) by garden variety nucleotide mutations in the DNA. There’s nothing new here—certainly no new paradigm. And when you map adaptive evolutionary change, and see where it resides in the genome, you invariably find that it rests on changes in DNA sequence, either structural-gene mutations or nucleotide changes in miRNAs or regulatory regions. I know of not a single good case where any evolutionary change was caused by non-DNA-based inheritance.

Indeed. Moreover, epigenetic changes are not very stably heritable, rarely persisting anywhere near enough generations to be a major force in evolution.

Of course, this blog is called Science-Based Medicine, not Why Evolution Is True. I only dwelled on evolution briefly because (1) the same sorts of arguments are being made for epigenetic modifications as a “mechanism” through which various CAM modalities “work” and (2) evolution interests me and we don’t talk about it enough in medicine. To boil it down, CAM advocates look to epigenetics as basically magic, a way that you—yes, you!—can reprogram your very own DNA (and all without Toby Alexander and the need to mess with all those messy etheric strands of DNA) and thereby heal yourself of almost anything or even render yourself basically immune to nearly every disease that plagues modern humans. Consequently, you see articles on and similar outlets with titles like How Your Thoughts Can Cause or Cure Cancer (through epigenetic modifications of your genome, of course, which you can supposedly control consciously!), Your Diet Could be More Important Than Your Genes, Can the theory of epigenetics be linked to Naturopathic and Alternative Medicine?, Falling for This Myth Could Give You Cancer (the “myth” being, of course, the central dogma of molecular biology in which genes make RNA, which make proteins), Epigenetics reinforces theory that positive mind states heal, Epigenetics discoveries challenge outdated medical beliefs about DNA, inheritance and gene expression, and Why Your DNA Isn’t Your Destiny. You also see videos like this interview with Bruce Lipton, one of the foremost promoters of the idea that you can do almost anything to your epigenome (and thus your health) just by thinking happy thoughts:

Can you count the number of straw men in Lipton’s description of biology? Particularly amusing is how Lipton tries to argue that the central dogma of biology was never scientifically proven, which is utter nonsense. Now, I’ve said before that I really never liked using the word “dogma” to describe a scientific concept like the central dogma of molecular biology. In fact, I’ve always hated it, because it does indeed imply that what is being described is a religious concept; so it’s no surprise that Lipton blathers on about how, back when he apparently still “believed in the old thinking,” he was actually “teaching religion.”

Of course, Lipton is a well-known crank, whose central idea seems to be a variant of The Secret, in which wanting something badly enough makes it so and that “modern science has bankrupted our souls.” Basically, he questions the “Newtonian vision of the primacy of a physical, mechanical Universe”; that “genes control biology”; that evolution resulted from random genetic mutations; and that evolution is driven by the survival of the fittest. As is the case with epigenetics in evolution, there are some scientists who provide the basis for Lipton’s claims in such a way that he can be off and running into the woo-sphere with claims that start out as being reasonable speculations based on the new science of epigenetics. No less a luminary than cancer biologist Robert Weinberg was, after all, quoted in an article entitled Epigenetics: How our experiences affect our offspring as saying that the evidence that epigenetics plays a major role in cancer has become “absolutely rock solid.” And so it has. If it weren’t, HDAC inhibitors wouldn’t be viewed as such a promising new class of drugs to use to treat cancer. Some, however, take a good idea a bit too far and claim that cancer is an “epigenetic disease”; it’s probably likely that it’s a combination of epigenetic and genetic changes that lead to cancer and that the relative contribution of each depends on the cancer. Even so, cancers virtually all have what I like to call (using my favorite scientific term, of course) “messed up genomes” so complicated that it’s no wonder we haven’t cured cancer yet.

Is it any wonder that a couple of years ago, Der Spiegel did a ten page feature on epigenetics? The cover of the issue in which this feature was published touted it with a nude blonde (and oh-so-Nordic) female emerging from the water with a DNA double helix-like twist of water covering up her naughty bits, with the headline proclaiming, “The victory over the genes. Smarter, healthier, happier. How we can outwit our genome.”


Then we have books like Happiness Genes: Unlock the Positive Potential Hidden in Your DNA by James D. Baird and Laurie Nadel, in which we are told, “Happiness is at your fingertips, or rather sitting in your DNA, right now! The new science of epigenetics reveals there are reserves of natural happiness within your DNA that can be controlled by you, by your emotions, beliefs and behavioral choices.”

I’m not sure how epigenetics will make you happy, but I’m sure Baird and Nadel are more than happy to explain if you buy their book. Not surprisingly, naturopaths are jumping on the bandwagon, claiming that epigenetics is at the root of how naturopathy “works”:

Generally speaking, if we want to express a gene and turn it into a protein, we would express certain DNA machinery (through histone proteins, promoters, regulators, etc) to make that happen, and vice versa to turn a gene off. So speaking from a naturopathic viewpoint, what we put into our bodies, the type of water that we drink, the way that we adapt to stress influences whether or not a certain gene is going to be turned on. For a more personal example, what I put into my body is going to influence my genetic code to promote or stop transcription and translation of the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes, which could eventually result into cancer.

I would suggest that any woman with a BRCA mutation, as Ms. Plonski apparently has, who relies on diet to prevent the adverse effects of cancer-causing BRCA mutations is taking an enormous risk.

Whenever I see the hype over epigenetics (which, let’s face it, is not just a quack phenomenon—it’s just that the quacks take it beyond hype into magical thinking), one thing that always strikes me about it is that there is often a blending (or even confusing) of simple gene regulation compared to epigenetics. In other words, do the diet and lifestyle changes that, for example, Dean Ornish has implicated in inducing changes in gene expression profiles in prostate epithelium work through short-term gene regulatory mechanisms or through epigenetic mechanisms that persist long term? Certainly, he argues that things start happening short term; one of his favorite examples is a graph that suggests that a single high-fat meal transiently impairs endothelial function and decreases blood flow within hours. When you see typical arguments that “lifestyle” or “environment” can overcome genetics, the term “epigenetics” becomes such a broad, wastebasket term as to be meaningless. Basically, anything that changes gene expression is lumped into “epigenetics,” whether those changes are in fact heritable or not. For example, in this brief blog post, we are told that food can cause or cure certain cancers. The reason:

Genes tell our bodies what to do and rebuild new cells so that we can continue to live a normal life. Our bodies have a system outside of our genes that was designed to keep our bodies running well. This system looks to turn off failing genes and activate genes needed to fight diseases. This management system is called epigenetics. We obviously need food, water, and nutrients to live. These things come from our food source. If we constantly eat bad foods we will knock the management system off-key just like putting bad fuel in our cars will eventually destroy the engine.

Yes, and no. Again, epigenetics, strictly defined, is about heritable changes in gene expression. What is being described here is any change in gene expression that can be induced by outside influences. They are not the same. Again, epigenetic changes are long term changes that are potentially heritable, and, as I pointed out above, most epigenetic changes are not passed on to offspring, certainly not to the point that they have a detectable effect on evolution. The rest is gene regulation, which is often transient but, depending on the process, can continue long term for as long as the stimulus causing the change in regulation is present. As is frequently pointed out, the quickest way to get an organ to start to return to normal is to stop doing the bad things to it that were causing it dysfunction in the first place. As P.Z. Myers put it:

In part, the root of the problem here is that we’re falling into an artificial dichotomy, that there is the gene as an enumerable, distinct character that can be plucked out and mapped as a fixed sequence of bits in a computer database, and there are all these messy cellular processes that affect what the gene does in the cell, and we try too hard to categorize these as separate. It’s a lot like the nature-nurture controversy, where the real problem is that biology doesn’t fall into these simple conceptual pigeonholes and we strain too hard to distinguish the indistinguishable. Grok the whole, people! You are the product of genes and cellular and environmental interactions.

Moreover, the straw man frequently (and gleefully) torn down by CAM advocates that doctors believe that genes are “destiny” notwithstanding, in reality, as far as I’ve been able to ascertain, doctors have been trying to subvert people’s “genetic destiny” for a long time, perhaps even longer than we have known that there is even such a thing as genes. For example, women with BRCA mutations that produce an alarmingly high lifetime risk of developing breast and/or ovarian cancer are often advised to take Tamoxifen to lower that risk, to undergo frequent screening to try to catch such cancers early, or even to undergo bilateral mastectomies and oophorectomies to remove as much of the tissue at risk of developing cancer as possible. People with a strong family history of heart disease are regularly advised to exercise and switch to a diet that lowers their risk of progression of atherosclerosis. People with type II diabetes similarly are advised to exercise and lose weight, which can in many cases decrease the level of glucose intolerance from which they suffer, sometimes to the point where they no longer fit the diagnostic criteria for type II diabetes. None of this is new or radical. What is new is the realization of the possibility that some of the mechanisms behind these changes involve epigenetic changes. And this is all fine.

Understanding epigenetics is likely to help us to understand certain long-term chronic diseases, but it is not, as you will hear from CAM advocates, some sort of magical panacea that will overcome our genetic predispositions. Nor will it be likely to allow us to “pass the health benefits of your healthy lifestyle…to your children through epigenomes’ reprogramming your DNA,” as is frequently claimed, as much as one might want to do that. Moreover, the science of epigenetics is in its infancy. There are still some serious methodological problems to overcome when doing epidemiological research of the effects of epigenetic changes, as this presentation by Dr. Jonathan Mill explains, an explanation that he echoed in a commentary entitled The seven plagues of epigenetic epidemiology. The worst of the “plagues” include that we do not know what to look for or where; the technology is very imperfect; sample sizes are way too small; whatever we do it won’t be enough to fully account for epigenetic differences between tissues and cells; and we might be trying to find small effect sizes using sub-optimal methods. Note the small effect sizes. Proponents of epigenetics as the heart of all “efficacy” of CAM tend to exaggerate the potential benefits. Again, remember how they claim that epigenetics can completely overcome genetics. There’s really no good evidence that I’m aware of that it can.

In the end, what is most concerning about the hype of epigenetics is how it feeds into what I’ve referred to (ironically, of course) as the “central dogma” of CAM: Namely The Secret. I fear that epigenetics is being grafted onto such mysticism such that not only can “positive thoughts” heal, but that they induce permanent (or at least long-lasting) changes in our genome through epigenetics. Besides the obvious danger that thinking does not usually make it so, which is a dangerous delusion for patients, the embrace of epigenetics as giving us “total control” over our health also produces the flip side of The Secret, which is that if one is ill it is his fault for not doing the right things or thinking happy enough faults.

Posted in: Basic Science, Cancer, Evolution, Neuroscience/Mental Health

Leave a Comment (64) ↓

64 thoughts on “Epigenetics: It doesn’t mean what quacks think it means

  1. Narad says:

    Basically, he questions the “Newtonian vision of the primacy of a physical, mechanical Universe”; that “genes control biology

    Classic occultism (I wouldn’t use the term “mysticism”): Object to naive realism, invoke sloppy metaphysics, and then expect to feed it back into realism.

  2. BillyJoe says:

    Nice graphic, David.
    I always scan through your posts to see how friggin’ long they are and if I have time to actually read them. But, now that I’ve spent a bit of time on the graphic, with the little time i have left, I’d better at least have a quick read to see if it was gratuitous or relevant.
    Not that I actually care.

  3. David Gorski says:

    If the graphic is too distracting, I can always remove it. :-)

  4. BillyJoe says:

    …okay, yes, it was gratuitous. (:

  5. BillyJoe says:

    …wait, I meant, yes, it was gratuitous, not, yes, remove it.

  6. David Gorski says:

    What about the substance of the post?

  7. David Gorski says:

    Classic occultism (I wouldn’t use the term “mysticism”): Object to naive realism, invoke sloppy metaphysics, and then expect to feed it back into realism.

    Which describes The Secret pretty well. There’s a reason why I’ve dubbed The Secret to be the Central Dogma of Alternative Medicine.

  8. mousethatroared says:

    The graphic is hilarious, but the description is even better – oh so Nordic.. :) Any day that you see “naughty bits” on SBM has got to be a good day.

  9. mousethatroared says:

    Oh, pfft. First he talks about naughty bits. Now he wants to talk about substance. (sigh).

  10. kathy says:

    If I was half as pretty as that dame, I wouldn’t WANT to outwit my genome. What a stoopid idea.

  11. passionlessDrone says:

    In my own field of cancer HDAC inhibitors are a hot area of research as “targeted” therapies, although I must admit that I have a hard time figuring out how a drug that can affect the expressions of hundreds of genes by deacetylating their histones can be considered to be tightly “targeted.” But that’s just me.

    Hehe. Very nicely stated.

    – pD

  12. Cowy1 says:

    Dr Gorski,

    Excellent article and explanation. Had a recent argument with a chiropractor who used used epigenetics as his hammer to refute any and all opposition to his point of view. He did this, of course, after misrepresenting the effects of vaccination (“the flu shot only activates TH2 immunity!!”, an idiotic statement if there ever was one).

  13. rork says:

    When I say epigenetics to talk about health and disease or cells, I usually don’t care if it’s heritable (between generations of diploid organisms) or not. Perhaps that’s a lack of being formal, and we are using lab jargon. I simply mean some genes are silenced in some cells by methyation or histone modification or other things, and maybe I should be saying that more carefully. Got another word when we merely mean somatic cells? I admit, where the methylation ends and the transcription factors begin is terribly complex and a bit of chicken-and-egg as well. We used to just say methylation, before we knew much about histones.

    We’ve tried 5-azacytidine on lupus, but please, keep the quacks out of this, unless it’s really research (and then maybe it’s not quackery). For them it’s nearly all “well it could be doing something like this” without asking if it is actually beneficial of not, or even if the hypothesized mechanism is operating. An attempt to increase plausibility for almost anything (without looking into the details).

  14. David Gorski says:

    I can’t believe I forgot to mention this, but you reminded me. The quacks’ use of the word “epigenetics” to justify all sorts of woo reminds me a lot of their use of the word “quantum.” They have no idea what it really means, but it’s this mysterious (to them) process that most people don’t know a lot about that can be twisted to sound as though it justifies magic.

  15. Harriet Hall says:

    Thanks for this, David. It clarifies a confusing subject and will be a handy place to send misinformed and misguided people for accurate information.

  16. nybgrus says:

    Of course this substance is quite up my own alley. The graphic was nice as well. However you did make a mistake in your substance – not all the naughty bits are covered by the water. :-P

    (for the purposes of my comment I will use “epigenetic” to mean whatever you want it to since for the purposes of my comment and to drive the point home even further it doesn’t actually make a difference what specific epigenetic mechanism you choose to talk about)

    I think a critical concept that is missing when CAMsters and others tout epigenetics is the fact that it is not a separate mechanism for the creation of genetic variation. Those in the legit science community who try and tout epigenetics as a selective mechanism for driving evolutionary change (Shapiro being one of them) always neglect to realize that literally everything that can be called “epigenetics” no matter how far fetched are all always rooted in and arise from the sequence of DNA. “Epigenetics” and “DNA” do not exist as completely separate entities each each able to independently influence the other and drive evolutionary change.

    The reason even legit academics (they are the vast minority) get it wrong here is because there are epigenetic mechanisms which increase the mutability of DNA. DNA “hot spots” and immune system somatic mypermutability are both excellent examples of this. This can easily be confused with “epigenetics” as an independent selective mechanism for heritable DNA changes and thus a driving force of evolution. But in every case the mechanisms which ultimately lead to this hypermutability are derived as phenotypes of the DNA sequence in the first place. Moreso, they cannot and do not exist in a vacuum, and themselves arose from random mutation and selective pressure. This is also a very distilled description of the evolution of sex (that is an excellent 9 minute video on the basics of the evolution of sex for anyone who is interested).

    Essentially it is advantageous to have extremely high rates of genetic recombination (at any level) because the variations produced allow for the generation of more variants for natural selection to act on as well as provide stability for development in an environment that is always changing (e.g. heterozygote advantage). It is so advantageous that it trumps the costs of being sexually reproductive and the costs of, for example, getting cancer.

    However, there needs to be some stability in the genome and things that work really well shouldn’t be messed with. So the epigenetic hypermutability must be – and is – constrained. Hence why there are “hot spots” in the DNA and not just everything mutates like crazy all the time.

    Obviously our environment can alter these processes. Carcinogens are a perfect example. That is also why we list risk factors are either “modifiable” or “non modifiable” when we discuss diseases. In a hypothetical (and likely) future world where can manipulate individual genes and gene sequences with high fidelity and excellent knowledge of what the outcomes would be, then “non modifiable” risk factors will become modifiable.

    But we can’t consciously control these processes (so no Secret-type modification) and environmental influences are, for the most part, constrained to the individual the same way a bullet wound is.

    Hypothetically epigenetic influences could actually lead to a sort of Lamarckian evolution. The problem is that they can’t really in practice, because the environmental factors that influence the epigenetics of a cell must be in context of what that cell actually is. In other words, something that you eat can influence the epigenetics of your esophageal mucosa to ultimately lead to esophageal cancer (hence the very high rates in Japan where smoked and charred foods are commonly consumed) but that same “something” can’t also alter the epigenetics of your gametes to alter their DNA such that your offspring have a predisposition for esophageal cancer (which is why Japanese people in other countries do not have a higher incidence of esophageal cancer than the background level of the country they live in*).

    So when CAMsters talk about epigenetics in disease they are either off the rails or merely referring to what we as science based physicians know about and do – risk modification. The same way I would recommend a smoker/drinker to stop in order to decrease the likelihood of esophageal cancer I would recommend someone stay out of environment with lots of extremely high speed projectiles to prevent gun shot wounds. One is just more obvious than the other.

    *Unless they adhere to a diet similar or identical to back home, of course

  17. Quill says:

    Thank you for this article. I read it twice and think I have a basic concept of actual epigenetics as opposed to quack-epigenetics or, reason forbid, quantum epigenetics.

    I also think your linking this whole epi-woo phenomenon to The Secret is spot-on. They’re both excellent examples of how one bit of truth, usually a very small bit, is used as a foundation to build an upside-down pyramid of all kinds of silliness, conclusions, and of course reasons to make things for sale. I think this is one of the great contrasts of sCAM and science. The former takes one small bit and builds empires on it while the latter looks to see how that bit may or may not fit with other things and continues to test and retest, ever expanding the models.

    Also, too, this word epigenetic definitely has that incantatory feel to it, precisely like quantum, when used by CAMsters. They use it exactly in that occult or cult-like way, repeating a word that points not to definable, measurable things but rather to a cloud of magical unknowing-knowing where -something- happens, something mysterious and wonderful, and is thus the latest panacea. And finally it’s all for sale, with quack miranda warnings, expensive packaging, full of nothing and sold dearly.

    Perhaps the next thing will be working with gene “expressions.” I can imagine a Reiki person using an energy healing modality to change the patient’s gene expressions from ones of unhappiness to health, turning all those genetic frowns into smiles.

  18. rork says:

    Quill’s right, even simple things like hunger changes gene expression in certain parts of my brain, which in turn can affect quite a few other things. Drinking any kool-aid you might name will too. More or less salt or potassium will send certain adrenal cells off to increase expression of genes to synthesize more (or less) steroids of various kinds. “Our new all-natural stero-expression tablets will optimize your CYP11B1 levels – buy now, you’ll feel great.”

  19. rork says:

    “Order renin-away today and control the damage caused by excessive angiotensinogenase. No, it’s not just salt.” OK, I’ll stop now.

  20. Chris says:

    Many years ago I got an email from someone I did not know titled “Re: The Biology of Belief – Bruce Lipton, cellular biologist”. The email started with:

    Many of you may remember me telling you about the intensive I attend last spring with Dr. Bruce Lipton. The following is a forward I received regarding his current work. Something you may want to look into yourself…

    And then continued to explain Lipton was going to talk in my city. I have no idea who the sender was.

    But it did make me look up Lipton (and post on a skeptic forum). I figured out it was all loony tunes. When I read this article and got to his name, I did an eye roll and had a chuckle. I was not as affected by the graphic as Billy Joe.

    I did recently hear a scientific podcast on epigenetics (Quirks and Quarks from One thing that was discussed was the effect of the starvation in the Netherlands near the end of WWII. Since my late father-in-law lived there then, I wondered if that had an effect on my children… but turned out the effect were on those who were in utero at that time, and he was a teenager then.

  21. mousethatroared says:

    Okay – since I made a wise crack about the saucy Nordic siren, I really wanted to also make a comment about the substance of the post, but I can’t do it. I became hopelessly lost in paragraph three and plugging on for another several paragraph (which sometimes works) kinda just made me feel like the time I got lost going from Tulum to Chitzen Itza and ended up on the border of Belize.

    This is not to criticize the post. I just don’t have the background for it. Anyone have a link to a Epigenetics for Dummies post?

    I suppose this is why a shyster would be attracted to the topic, there is absolutely no way someone like me could tell a good epigenetics recommendation from a bad one. I will just hope and pray that I never need to tell the difference.

  22. weing says:


    You may have to wait till July for this

  23. mousethatroared says:

    Well weing, I suppose that would give me time to build that background in biology, more specifically genetics that the course recommends…but to be realistic that’s probably not going to happen by July. Thanks though.

    I don’t mean to fuss, reading this blog, with my minimal biology background, I don’t expect to be “get” every post. It’s just that the topic does sound fascinating. The description of the Melborne course sounded fascinating. I suspect it is somewhat like quantum physics in that regard. The allure is not just that it’s difficult to understand. It’s that it sounds interesting enough to attract folks to the concept…but then they drown in the difficult details.

    Kinda like one of those pitcher plants.

  24. mousethatroared says:

    There does seem to be a Nova on the topic though. That’s probably more my speed.

  25. nybgrus says:


    In a simplified nutshell, epigenetics is all the stuff that happens to DNA that is a few steps removed from the DNA itself.

    So we generally learn the “central dogma” in grade school (well, I learned it in 6th grade science anyways) as:

    DNA turns into RNA which is used to make proteins. Proteins make up what we look like and do (our phenotype).

    So without epigenetics, everything we are is literally just directly the code in our DNA. But that is very limited in what it can actually do. It would be kind of like being able to make words with letters but not use grammar, syntax, or punctuation and having to write out every word we know, in order, without omission.

    So epigenetics is the stuff that modifies the way that proteins actually get expressed and thus our phenotype. It can silence parts of DNA so it can’t go to RNA. It can modify how much RNA is turned into proteins. It can even modify how quickly DNA mutates. And there are a number of different ways this happens. So it gives the string of AGCT a way of having syntax, grammer, punctuation, and can omit words it doesn’t need or amp up words when the paragraph needs extra emphasis. And, just like writing, what you write and how you say can change based on the environment. But you basic lexicon doesn’t necessarily change (though the parts of epigenetics that increases mutation is like reading a book of random letters and hoping to find some new words to add).

    Where people get it wrong is they think that this epigenetics stuff is actually able to drive evolution by itself. But just like grammar and syntax don’t exist without words, neither does epigenetics exist with the DNA to code its existence in the first place.

    So the potential utility from a medical standpoint is that we can change the way a cell acts by changing the epigenetics instead of (just) the DNA. Like changing the meaning of a paragraph by moving around commas and periods and sentence structure.

    It’s obviously a bit more complicated than that, but hopefully that helps a little.

  26. Chris says:

    MouseThatRoared, at least you recognized the most important part of the use of epigenetics in the article: I suppose this is why a shyster would be attracted to the topic, there is absolutely no way someone like me could tell a good epigenetics recommendation from a bad one.

    Someone like Lipton uses it as a scientific buzz word like “quantum” to make his nonsense sound more plausible. And really, that is the crux of the article. The use of the specialized buzz words.

    Also, the NOVA program is very good. I enjoyed it.

    Also, after skipping biology in high school to take chemistry and physics before graduating from high school a year early… I decided to fill in my gap in education by taking a beginning biology class at a community college. That has helped me understand more on this blog. And it may have been better since there were many changes in understanding in the last (cough cough) thirty eight years. Plus it was fun.

  27. dangblog says:

    I hope someday you (or any your learned readers) will comment on “epigenetic orthodontics,” something that a dentist once recommended to me.
    The seller and practitioner brings up epigenetics in the very first paragraph of his site. I’ve had a long-running skeptical debate about it on my own blog, but I have no medical/scientific background. As far as I can tell, “epigenetics” is just a sales gimmick.

  28. Grant Jacobs says:


    I feel that a problem with explaining epigenetics properly, even at a simple level, is that there is quite a bit of context needed. There’s a TEDx lecture that I think does a better job in providing some of that context than the NOVA show you’re thinking of, even if it’s a bit dry compared to most TED lectures. I have put up a post that features that and a couple of other videos on my blog) (i.e. in a few hours). I may try write to some posts about epigenetics for general readers later. One day. Perhaps. (i.e. no promises, certainly don’t expect much in the next few days.)

    “Kinda like one of those pitcher plants.” Speaking of pitcher plants, search for the article “Aww, crap” on my blog ;-)

  29. mousethatroared says:

    Grant Jacobs – Yes, context is exactly the problem I’m having. Thanks for the link! I’ll check it out.

  30. Armi Legge says:

    Great post Dr. Gorski,

    The CAM proponents also use epigenetics as a justification for a ton of ridiculous dietary advice as well. Since, as you said, it’s such a nebulous term, it’s easy to blame certain foods as being “bad for your genes”, which is obviously another, more pseudoscientific slant on “clean eating.”

    BTW, nice article on that topic as well:

    Keep up the great work,

    – Armi

  31. DavidRLogan says:

    Great post and comments. Very informative…

  32. DavidRLogan says:

    …everytime I read something like this I just feel depressed and stupid that I made all of these same assertions and mistakes over email/to family/etc. I hate myself.

    -another self-inflating post by me.

  33. mousethatroared says:

    oh hey in all the gender hoopla I almost missed your comments nybrgus and Chris.

    nybrgus – I think I might be getting that. Would it be loosely correct to say that a person’s DNA is like a software language (in HTML it would be the index of tags) and epigenetic is like the source code?

    *this is not meant to imply any great programmer in the sky, just following the analogy. ;)

    Chris, an intro bio class is not a bad idea. It’s funny, I did have an excellent bio class as a freshman in college in 1984.* In fact, the prof was so interesting that it’s kinda surprising that I never took another bio class. I suppose they conflicted with the rather hour extensive art studio schedule. Or maybe I was just intimidated, not sure.

    *Possibly they’ve figured out some new things since. then, eh?

  34. Chris says:

    Yes, they have figured out some new things. Like a whole new class of organism (okay, it was slightly before 1980, but they have found lots of different kinds of extremophiles, and beyond):

    It certainly has changed since I was a college freshman almost a decade before you.

  35. mousethatroared says:

    @Chris, well there you go. You know, my various web venues give me some interesting ideas. Combine my pinterest feed featuring a project on custom plates using sharpie pens and your link, it occures to me – ‘Hey why don’t I make plates for the kitchen with illustrations of various viruses and bacteria that cause food poisoning?’

  36. nybgrus says:


    lol. Sadly my knowledge of html and source code is probably lacking enough to make it impossible for me to make a good analogy using computer science. But I’ll try.

    However, I think it’s not quite right.

    HTML is the DNA. But the source code would be the finished product of “the cell.”

    Epigenetics is what takes the HTML and turns it into source code.

    So DNA is like HTML if you just take every tag and command and organize it alphabetically. The process of turning that list into a complex program is the epigenetics, if that makes sense.

  37. mousethatroared says:

    hum – I thought the cell would be the web site page…meaning basically the finished product. Maybe the analogy is a distraction though. I do think I am getting the picture.

    Thanks nybrgus!

  38. Chris says:


    ‘Hey why don’t I make plates for the kitchen with illustrations of various viruses and bacteria that cause food poisoning?’

    Or those that contribute to the creation of food, like the salt-loving bacteria that create pink salt (which is what causes the color in expensive Himalayan salt), or the microbes used in fermenting, pickling, etc?

    Once I am through writing some letters this morning, I will go back to hemming scarves that were woven from caterpillar cocoons (obtained with a $100 fabric store gift certificate and a 20% off sale, making several is a good skill builder). Looking up the critters, I learned they cannot live in the wild. Wow.

  39. mousethatroared says:

    @Chris – yes, after getting past my baser tendency to be a prankster, it occurred to me that beneficial microbes might be more appetizing.

  40. Angora Rabbit says:

    @Chris: any conversation that includes both fiber and epigenetics is a good conversation. :)

    I will also plug the Nova episode “The Ghost in Your Genes.” The visuals there are very helpful and you can watch the Nova episode for free from the PBS website. I used the show several years ago when epigenetics was the subject of our grad seminar and the students really appreciated the episode.

    I like the analogy that DNA is an orchestra and the transcriptional machinery is the conductor. In this analogy, epigenetics would be the musical score that tells which performer to play when, for how long, and what note. The epigenetic mechanism would be a cork to stop the noise (cytosine methylation) or tying up the performer (histone modification and chromatin wrapping). Not a perfect analogy by any means. Try the Nova show. :)

  41. nybgrus says:


    I said I was probably out of my depth in the analogy. But I think we are pretty much there. The HTML is the DNA. The source code is every bit of the components of the cell, and the webpage itself is the complete cell functioning. Epigenetics is what allows you to turn HTML into source code and help direct the running of the final webpage, both by altering the source code and by altering how the page actually displays a given source code.

  42. Chris says:

    Angora Rabbit:

    @Chris: any conversation that includes both fiber and epigenetics is a good conversation.

    Thank you. I am even more intrigued by the genetics coding after reading Spider Silk. I see from the wiki page on silkworms that there is research to get spider silk from them.

    Here is the site for the NOVA program:

    I just checked my local library, and it is available on DVD and as a downloadable video.

  43. Grant Jacobs says:

    Angora Rabbit: The orchestra analogy isn’t bad ;-) Think I’ve seen that somewhere before. Either that or deja vu…


    In a nutshell, epigenetic control of genes controls of the genes are accessible to be used or not. (As opposed to how often genes that are available to be used, are used.)

    As someone who both studies epigenetics and has experience in developing on-line services, let me try that HTML analogy. (Personally I prefer to teach people the reality rather than rely on analogies as they’re essentially sound-bites and invariably wrong when looked at closer. I also hate computer-related analogies for living systems, they don’t reflect living systems well. But all the same…)

    Consider web pages that have text and use HTML, CSS and Javascript for mark-up. Let’s not allow modifying the text or HTML tags. (Only CSS attribute modifications allowed!)

    The text content is always present, whether it’s presented to the user or not.

    CSS, for example, can mark portions as having different states, e.g. emphasised, hidden, etc.

    Javascript can modify the CSS attributes in response to user actions, etc.

    In this analogy, DNA is the text – always present whether it’s accessible to be used or not. (Shown to the user or not.)

    HTML tags are the proteins that organise the structure of the DNA – nucleosomes and the other genome structure proteins. (Like blocks of HTML, some structural proteins organise the genome into chunks that the epigenetic control works on. Nucleosomes could be paragraph elements and the other genome structure proteins div elements, that can contain many paragraphs.)

    CSS attributes are the chemical modifications to nucleosomes (HTML tags), that lead to altered states of the gene (block of text) they define.

    Javascript code are the enzymes that carry out the chemical modifications (changes in CSS attributes) of the nucleosomes (HTML tags).

    Somewhere in there are direct modifications of DNA (like cytosine modification), but like I said analogies invariably break down… It’s already broken anyway as how nucleosomes and the other proteins that structure the regions of the genome work is complex and not linear. (They work in 3-D space, for one thing.) But this is just for fun, right?

    For laughs: let’s say embedded code (YouTube videos, Flash, etc.) are (integrated) viruses :-)

  44. mousethatroared says:

    Grant Jacobs – Ha! that is very good. I understand what you mean by the flaws of analogies, but I DO think it gives me a general picture and some concept of the relationship between elements. Thanks!

  45. Grant Jacobs says:

    Mouse – Ta. Excuse the typos. This one at least I ought to correct:

    In a nutshell, epigenetic control of genes controls if the genes are accessible to be used or not.

  46. Geena says:

    Hello! My name is Geena. You might remember me, I’m an energy healer and came by this site a couple months ago to find out more about CAM therapies and any support that might also exist for Reiki or Energy Healing. I have already looked at the info that was recommended and I appreciate the time everyone took responding.

    I’m back now because I’ve been reading up on Epigenetics … My sources so far have been the Science Museum in London, and one of the things they mention on their website is how exercise, healthy diet, and not smoking or drinking can have a positive on the epigenome. In some cases a positiv lifestyle may silence disease genes, etc. I know that epigenetics is still in its infancy but I wanted to hear your thoughts on that in particular?

    It also says that the epigenetic markers may be passed on to children. I’m wondering if that means that people who smoke a lot are more likely to put their kids at risk. Or if people who don’t smoke silence that risk before it is passed on to their kids. If my logic has legs to stand on that could be a stronger incentive for people to quit smoking. =)



    ps … Is it also true that carrying genes BRAC1 and 2 put a woman at about 80% risk of getting cancer?

  47. Geena says:

    ps … I have a healing blog and I’m happy to share your thoughts (in a friendly way) with my readers =)

  48. WilliamLawrenceUtridge says:

    Nothing supports reiki or energy healing. We know what energy is, we can measure energy, and there’s no form of energy that resembles what is alleged when discussing reiki or energy healing. See:

    Should also google “Emily Rosa”.

    From my very cursory understanding, nearly anything can affect the epigenome, but at this point meaningful changes would be reflected in gross measures of health (i.e. risk of death). The epigenome isn’t magic, and it certainly isn’t affected by reiki.

  49. Geena says:

    Hello! Thanks for the quick answer, though I think you misunderstood my question =)

    I was asking if smoking, drinking, and levels of stress or exercise have an effect on the epigenome. For example, if a particular kind of cancer is genetic, is it possible that not smoking/drinking might silence the gene?

    Or the other way around, can stress, cigarettes and alcohol “activate” activate the gene?



  50. WilliamLawrenceUtridge says:

    Nearly everything probably has an effect on the epigenome, but one must distinguish the causes of cancer. Some are genetic and unavoidable. Others are environmental. Generally genes and environment work in tandem to influence disease and health. At this point it is probably far too premature to think that we understand enough of epigenetics to truly understand how cancer, lifestyle and genetics interact at an epigenetic level.

    But from an observational perspective – some people smoke and get lung cancer. Some people don’t smoke and get lung cancer. Some people smoke and don’t get lung cancer, some people don’t smoke and don’t get lung cancer. You are attempting to use reductionism to explain what we already know empirically, and we’re not there yet.

    Besides, there’s no such thing as “cancer”. It’s a term for undifferentiated cell growth, but it is always dependent on the specific mutations at the specific cellular level. Smoking and drinking doubtless have some epigenetic effects that drive certain cancers, and prevent others. So it really depends on what cancer, how much of each, a whole bunch of random chance and genetic factors. Some cancers no doubt manipulate epigenetic changes to potentiate differentiation, deactivating some genes and activating others (more accurately, some genetic mutations alter epigenetics to speed, others to slow, undifferentiated cellular division).

    The thing is, we already understand the risk factors at an empirical level (smoking, flatly, increases risk of lung cancer, whether this is due to epigenetic or other means is irrelevant). Some of those risks can be offset by behaviours, others can not – again at an empirical level. To manipulate epigeneitic changes directly is currently beyond our technical ability, and when it occurs will doubtless involve engineered endogenous retroviruses. So for now, knowing the empirical risk and protective behaviours is enough without knowing the precise epigenetic mechanisms.

    If you’re interested in a science-based perspective on cancer, you should read The Emperor of all Maladies. It’s great.

  51. Geena says:

    Hi, Thanks for taking the time to explain it to me. Will check out that book as well. =) I actually find science fascinating (odd for a Reiki Healer?). I read the book review on this site yesterday and it does look good.

  52. WilliamLawrenceUtridge says:

    I actually find science fascinating (odd for a Reiki Healer)

    No, it just suggests like so many people that you maintain cognitive schema that allow you certain double-standards to justify believing in irrational things. You are little more than a jumped-up ape after all, and we’re very good about carving out little areas of our brains that allow us to say “yes, but” and follow it with something crazy and irrational.

    If you were intellectually honest, you might try reading some of the criticisms of reiki, and realize all you’re really doing is hoping really hard that someone gets better. You aren’t healing anyone, at best you’re making them feel better about being sick (and generally all you’re really doing is convincing yourself you’re doing something for someone – while taking their money). Just, for the love of dog, restrict yourself to complementary healing and don’t try to convince people out of getting real treatment. You’ll go from being merely parasitic on time and money but health-neutral to being truly dangerous.

  53. Geena says:

    Hi … Where do I start?

    In the United Kingdom (where I live) its fairly common to have Reiki and other complementary therapists there to help patients while they go through medical treatment. Its only a support mechanism and qualified healers do not claim to cure or treat. We volunteer in hospitals and at cancer support centers and its sanctioned by hospital staff.

    Appreciate that is not the case in the US so I understand your hostility. When people ask me about “alternative” therapies I tell them to listen to their doctor rather than clutch at straws. Mortality rates are actually dropping in the UK thanks to early detection (national screening programs) and the breakthroughs in medical care.

    I might believe in something crazy and irrational from your point of view, but I’m OK with that =)

    Have a nice day and thanks again for the book recommendation.

    I will check it out.

  54. WilliamLawrenceUtridge says:

    In the United Kingdom (where I live) its fairly common to have Reiki and other complementary therapists there to help patients while they go through medical treatment. Its only a support mechanism and qualified healers do not claim to cure or treat. We volunteer in hospitals and at cancer support centers and its sanctioned by hospital staff.

    Yeah, you’re not helping or supporting anyone. Why not just sit with these people and talk to them? Reiki doesn’t exist, even if you’re not charging any money, you’re wasting everyone’s time.

    Appreciate that is not the case in the US so I understand your hostility. When people ask me about “alternative” therapies I tell them to listen to their doctor rather than clutch at straws.

    …the straws you are providing them. Seriously, just sit and talk to them. Don’t pretend magic exists, just sit and talk to them.

    I might believe in something crazy and irrational from your point of view, but I’m OK with that =)

    Oh, it’s not “from my point of view”. It’s simply factually correct. They can measure the impact of a single photon on a detector. They can measure distances of angstroms. They are now probing quantum foam. They can test energies to thirteen decimal places of certainty. If reiki did anything, they would know about it, be able to measure it, and probably invent a machine that could do it better than any human. Reiki doesn’t exist, it doesn’t do anything, and my criticism was and always has been that you are a drain on whatever system you interact with. I’m sure waving your hands around and thinking happy thoughts makes you feel better, you probably feel like you’ve got some sort of control because of it. But that doesn’t make it reality.

  55. mousethatroared says:

    WLU – I see that you are working on your “catch more flies with honey” approach. ;)

    You know I was reading the other day that there is some evidence that criticizing a behavior (compared to saying nothing or just making positive recommendations) actually increases the rate of the criticized behavior.

    Of course everyone assumes that criticism works….look, I’m doing it now. :0

    But, wouldn’t that be kinda ironic, though. If we were all using an intuitive method that evidence showed was counter productive to our goals?

  56. WilliamLawrenceUtridge says:

    Naw, I’m cranky, I want to criticize.

    Plus, you rarely convince the convinced, my aim is at the undecided.

  57. Narad says:

    If reiki did anything, they would know about it, be able to measure it, and probably invent a machine that could do it better than any human.

    How long until somebody shows up with Bengston’s “geomagnetic probes”?

  58. mousethatroared says:

    WLU – I’m feeling upbeat, so I’ll let you be. ;)

    …although, I do wonder if Geena might not have been 100% decided. I think curiosity is always a good sign.


  59. WilliamLawrenceUtridge says:

    Naw, I always appreciate your comments as they do highlight my excesses. Just because it feels good doesn’t mean I should keep doing it. What am I, a dirty hippie?

  60. mousethatroared says:

    oy, I could tell you stories about dirty hippies…my advice, only hang out with the clean ones. They are much more stable.

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