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Science You Want to Know: Epigenetic Research Actually Explains What Makes us Human

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Wellness related image Photo: Getty Images

"Epigenetics is now the hottest thing in biosciences."

That quote from Randy Jirtle, PhD, director of the Epigenetics and Imprinting Laboratory at Duke University, captures the challenge and the promise for exploring the topic in health writing today, too.

Epigenetics research is growing at an exponential rate. And it's breaking into mainstream health reporting also, with major coverage in Time, Newsweek and Nova.

Whether you're working on an article analyzing trends in NIH funding, or looking for a hook to lead your story about obesity in pregnancy, how are you going to deal with the epigenetics references popping up all around?

After all, if the dramatic rise in research on this topic only took off in 2003, how many of us are likely to understand both the field's promise and its limitations?

As a journalist, you may be thinking that the word "epigenetics" gives you post-traumatic flashbacks to the last time you tried to figure out the exact difference between RNA versus DNA (hey, it's one letter - right?). Or you may be the kind of health-science writer who can toss off a "mono-allelic expression" joke as you're also tossing back a cold one.

Either way, Dr. Randy Jirtle's Thursday keynote address to California Endowment Health Journalism Fellows gathered this week in Pasadena, "Epigenetics: How Genes and Environment Interact," provided great insights into this important topic.

It began, appropriately enough, at our human beginnings. We each have half our DNA from our mother, and half from our father. Our genes are present (with a few notable exceptions) in every cell of our body. But even though our cells have the same genes, we have gobs of very different cell types. How does that happen? How is it that a plump beer-churning liver cell knows how to be completely different from a two-foot long neuron snaking down your leg and zinging your toes whenever you sit too long typing? If they've both got the exact same genes, shouldn't they be exactly the same? Well that's where epigenetics comes in. As we develop, Dr. Jirtle pointed out, we have over 200-300 cell types that emerge from our fetal clump of cells.

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