What Makes You Stronger Could Also Kill You

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DNA methylation was one of those wondrous discoveries that has completely changed the way we think about evolution and genetics. Essentially, certain characteristics and traits may or may not be expressed due to the attachment of methyl groups to DNA molecules. This process however, doesn’t take thousands of years, but can occur in a single generation, and can even be passed on to children. This indicates that humans are evolving much more frequently and subtly than we ever could have imagined, and this process allows us to rapidly alter our own phenotypes to better adapt to our world. But researchers are beginning to believe that this may come at a cost.

New insights into DNA methylation are beginning to reveal that not only does the prevalence of methylation increase with age, but that the presence of methylated genes makes cells more likely to become cancerous – hence a likely explanation for the significant increase in cancer risk as we age. This is because by turning off temporarily unused but potentially vital cell processes, our cells become more susceptible to malfunctioning. In a study from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (read more here), researchers found that “70 percent to 90 percent of sites linked to age showed significantly increased methylation across all seven cancer types.”

As methylated genes build up over generations, it is possible that rates of cancer might increase as a sacrifice for genetics that are beneficial in the short-term (up until reproduction). In fact, the World Health Organization reported that rates of cancer are expected to increase by 70 percent globally during the next two decades, and are increasingly prevalent among older individuals. So even though I like to think of all our lives as special, unique, and meaningful, I have to ask whether or not we’re tending towards eerily efficient reproduction factories. It’s a scary thought.

– Zach

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~ by zshrmn on February 23, 2014.

One Response to “What Makes You Stronger Could Also Kill You”

  1. Though I haven’t really taken a legitimate science class at Vanderbilt, I do remember in high school talking about how the evolutionary fitness of an animal is highly based on being able to continue the species. That’s almost what it seems like DNA methylation is doing aiming for. What doesn’t make sense to me is why this would happen without some natural force impeding our ability to reproduce, since it seems that we’ve been pretty effective at it in recent history. Definitely a frightening thought though.

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