Do our actions affect our genes? Can our choices influence our DNA?

Ever since Mendel’s brilliant experiments with the simple pea plant, we’ve known that genes can determine how an organism looks, grows and expresses a variety of characteristics

Now, studies in the exciting field of epigenetics are exploring the other side of the equation – how the environment impacts our genome. With these discoveries, age-old questions are thrust before us with new fervor — how much control do we have over our own choices? Do we really have free will?

Dr. William Kraus is a cardiologist and researcher in the genetics of cardiovascular disease at the Duke University Medical Center.  Cardiovascular health, like the music from a piano, results from the interaction of instrument of the body and its mastery through the practice of exercise.  These interactions between the outside world and our bodies and our genes – called “epigenetic effects” – are only now beginning to be understood.

The good news, and perhaps the bad, is that for most complex human characteristics, genes play a role, but our choices do matter.  Bill helps us understand how much.

So yes, our choices do impact our genes. So what happens when we begin to make more and more individualized choices about our health?

The buzz phrase we hear is “personalized medicine” – striving to make medical treatments that are customized for the needs of individual people. But where are we, really, with this massive, laudable effort? How does this new science of genomics and personalized medicine affect each of us individually and all of us as a global society?

Dr. Greg Samsa, biostatistician at the Duke University School of Medicine, joins us again this week to explain his views on the current state of personalized medicine, contextualizing these world-changing innovations.

There are many misconceptions about the impact of genes on health, and the current state of genomic data as a tool for personalized medicine. There is always the push and pull of the human desire to confront the frontiers of creation itself.

We illuminate worlds that have heretofore been hidden from our sight, and we want desperately to celebrate and share our new visions and capabilities.  Yet, like a child who has but traced the outline of a picture, there is much still to color in.  And that may make all the difference.

(This post is part of the Sinai and Synapses Discussion Forum, a collection of perspectives on specific topics. It is part of our Spring 2015 series Are We More Than Our Genes? For more on our series of videos exploring this question, please look at the post Our Genes, Our Selves.)