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  • Writer's pictureRuth Hull

What does a honey bee have to do with epigenetics?

Did you know that queen bees and worker bees are genetically identical? They have identical DNA. So what makes them so different? What makes the queen have a larger body, live a longer life and be able to lay thousands of eggs while worker bees are smaller and sterile? It's all in what they eat!

The queen bee eats nothing but royal jelly her entire life while worker bees only eat royal jelly for the first few days of their life before switching to honey and pollen.

So, you might be thinking - what on earth does this have to do with epigenetics? Actually, everything.

Epigenetics and bees
The only difference between a queen bee and a worker bee is what she eats!

Royal jelly contains a compound that stops the action of specific enzymes that normally remove epigenetic tags from DNA. This results in a build-up of these tags and it is this build-up of tags that switches on key genes required for the development of a queen. Without this specific chemical compound in their diet, larvae develop into workers.

If you like to get techy, and want to know more of the science behind this, then read the article that inspired this blog: Epigenetics - It's not just genes that make us.

If you just want to know why an understanding of epigenetics is important in your own personal health journey, then read on ...

What is epigenetics?

What do I mean by 'epigenetic tags'? In fact, some of you might be asking yourselves 'what on earth is epigenetics'? So let's start with that.

For many years scientists believed that the genes you are born with determine who you will be and what diseases you will develop. Then, in the year 2000, Randy Jirtle and Robert Waterland produced a groundbreaking genetic experiment showing that it is not your genes alone that define you - it is the way in which they are expressed that is important.

I want to repeat that because it is so important that you understand that no matter what diseases or health conditions your parents may have, you can control your own health! So here are those words again:

It is not your genes alone that define you - it is the way in which they are expressed that is important.

Now, before we go any further, let's get to grips with some terminology.

What are genes?

Genes are the hereditary units of our cells and they control the structure and activity of our cells. They're arranged along structures called chromosomes.

What is gene expression ?

Gene expression is the process by which the information from a gene is used to produce a new product, usually a protein. Genes are the blueprints for proteins and although they cannot be changed, the expression of them can be changed.

Epigenetics explained

Epigenetics is the process by which genetic expression is modified without the underlying gene itself being changed. Epigenetics is the process in which molecular tags attached to genes control the expression of those genes - these tags are like switches that can turn genes on and off and so control the end product.

Agouti mice

Agouti mice and epigenetics
Take a look at this photo of the agouti mice. Believe it or not, they're genetically identical! They've just eaten different diets! Mmmmm...makes you think a bit about your own diet, doesn't it !?!

Now let's get back to the year 2000 and Jirtle and Waterland. They took two fat, yellow mice who carried a particular gene that made them continually hungry, yellow in colour and prone to cancer and diabetes. These mice are commonly referred to as agouti mice and the gene they carried was the agouti gene.

However, Jirtle and Waterland did something a bit different with the mother mouse. Starting before conception, they fed her a diet of foods known to be rich in methyl-donors which affect epigenetic tags. And guess what happened – her offspring were born slim, brown and lived to old age without developing diabetes or cancer!

How can I improve my epigenetics?

You're probably wondering what's the point of understanding the concept of epigenetics, aren't you? Well, I hope you can see where I'm trying to go with this blog? What you eat and do on a day-to-day basis really does matter!

We may not choose what genes we're born with - but we can choose which genes we want expressed. Think about that.......seriously.

"Epigenetics is proving we have some responsibility for the integrity of our genome. Before, genes predetermined outcomes. Now everything we do—everything we eat or smoke—can affect our gene expression and that of future generations. Epigenetics introduces the concept of free will into our idea of genetics." - Randy Jirtle

The wonderful thing about epigenetics is that even if you're born with a specific gene variant, there is still a lot you can do to lead a good, healthy life.

If you want to improve your epigenetics, start by taking a look at what you're eating - which agouti mouse are you turning yourself into? Epigenetics is influenced by many things, especially:

  • diet

  • environmental toxins

  • exercise

  • sleep

  • stress.

All of the above are things you can choose to control. If you're not sure how or where to start when it comes to building a healthy body and mind, then subscribe to my blog below and let me help you on your journey towards better health.


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