What we inherit: Heckman teaches epigenetic craze

January 17, 2019

Anyone who has seen Upper School Science teacher Ned Heckman teach knows that his enthusiasm for incredible scientific breakthroughs is boundless. He entertains his classes with humor, dramatized actions and wacky analogies. The same is true for epigenetics, a hot topic in the genetics world, according to Heckman.

Heckman, who teaches Genetics to interested juniors and seniors, takes the genetics unit from sophomore biology courses and expands upon the subject in depth throughout one semester. One such unit was about epigenetics. Epigenetics is the idea that factors in a human’s environment can have detrimental effects and consequences on what genes are expressed within someone’s DNA. The genes humans possess that are expressed or not are dictated by certain chemicals and even personal experiences of previous generations.

“The reason it’s gaining popularity so much is that we are really coming to understand how powerful it is. Of course, we know evolution. There was a theory that said that you get your traits through use and disuse. For example, a giraffe will get a longer neck because it’s stretching. Now, we look back and laugh. We assumed the relationship was because your genes dictate your characteristics. But, the reality is, just because you have a gene, that doesn’t mean diddly. That gene has to be expressed and make a protein so that it can influence a trait. It’s not that an environment can give you certain traits, but it is that your environment can influence gene expressions,” Heckman said.

It’s not that an environment can give you certain traits, but it is that your environment can influence gene expressions”

— Ned Heckman

Senior Anna Perleberg, who enrolled in the Genetics course because of her love of biology, affirms the epigenetics heightened her interest in genetic makeup functions.

“I think in the past we learned that the two things that really affect you are your environment and your set traits; we never really learned how those can get passed down. It’s interesting for me to hear about how your environment can really change your genes for future generations,” she said.

Likewise, senior Isaac Fink who took the Genetics class last year believes epigenetics bends the sometimes rigid beliefs of science.

“It’s really interesting because we always think of genetics as a hardcoded thing that is static because epigenetics can change throughout your lifetime and epigenetics can dictate the lives of your descendants. Your actions can actually affect the people that come after you,” he said.

The future generations Perleberg and Fink refer to are the individuals who carry on a gene marker. A popular example of epigenetics at work originates from the Hunger Winter during World War II when Nazis would starve people in the Netherlands. From the mass famine inflicted upon Netherland populations, scientists have found that the next generation was found to be slightly overweight, higher cholesterol and an increased chance of developing Type II diabetes.

 

Heckman describes the science behind inheriting trauma as a result of gene methylation, meaning DNA cannot make proteins. Smoking cigarettes is another common example of epigenetics at work:

“DNA methylation prevents genes from being transcribed. The more methylated, the less likely it will be transcribed which is problematic because that stops the production of proteins that make you a whole healthy person, to oversimplify a little bit,” Heckman said.

Epigenetics lends itself to the study of history and modern-day social issues. Current scientific studies concerning how epigenetics plays a role in racial disparities in health care. In one study, researchers found that Black women and Latina women were more likely to experience chronic stress, which affects pregnancy and causes babies to be born prematurely. Premature birth is a problem as it poses many health risks for the mother and children, making populations of Black children and Latino children face increased health risks. For Heckman, the connection between the social and scientific fulfills both his interests in equity and genetics.

“What I love most about epigenetics is that it is a beautiful way to sort of say to people who think science exists in a vacuum, you’re actually super wrong, our environment has a fundamental impact on a genetic basis and I can show it in animals and human beings. It’s an area that deserves a lot of attention. It speaks to me what I can about with uniting social issues and science,” Heckman said.

For more information about current epigenetic studies, visit What is Epigenetics, an online platform that consolidates epigenetic information.

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