Meaney and Szyf had proved something incredible. The erasure is imperfect, and sometimes the affected genes may make it through to the next generation, setting the stage for transmission of the altered traits in descendants as well. The offspring did not show most of the behavioral abnormalities, suggesting that epigenetic transmission may not be at the root. Research dating back to the s had shown that rats handled by humans for as little as five to 15 minutes per day during their first three weeks of life grew up to be calmer and less reactive to stressful environments compared with their non-handled littermates. One line of research traces memory loss in old age to epigenetic alterations in brain neurons. But it is going to be a leap. So the less the better when it comes to transcribing the affected gene.
Most striking, however, was the finding that genes were more than twice as likely to show methylation changes based on family income during early childhood versus economic status as adults. McGill University Now, at the bar in Madrid, Szyf and Meaney considered a hypothesis as improbable as it was profound: The mechanisms of behavioral epigenetics underlie not only deficits and weaknesses but strengths and resiliencies, too. As they predicted, the rats born to attentive mothers but raised by inattentive ones grew up to have low levels of glucocorticoid receptors in their hippocampus and behaved skittishly. And what if we could create a pill potent enough to wipe clean the epigenetic slate of all that history wrote? Of these, 6, genes varied significantly based on poverty or wealth. DNA is the master code, residing inside the nucleus of every cell; RNA transcribes the code to build whatever proteins the cell needs. In further testing, Nestler took sperm from defeated males and impregnated females through in vitro fertilization. Likewise, those born to bad mothers but raised by good ones grew up to be calm and brave and had high levels of glucocorticoid receptors. To test that possibility, Meaney and Szyf took yet another litter of rats raised by rotten mothers. Meaney and Szyf had proved something incredible. Timing, in other words, matters. But he needed a thesis adviser, and Razin was there. So it was perfect. But the ability of epigenetic change to persist across generations remains the subject of debate. Without a mutation to the DNA code itself, the attached methyl groups cause long-term, heritable change in gene function. They become a part of us, a molecular residue holding fast to our genetic scaffolding. The studies were the first to show that the action of genes could be modulated by structures called methyl groups, a subject about which Szyf knew precisely nothing. The Beat Goes On Together, Meaney and Szyf have gone on to publish some two-dozen papers, finding evidence along the way of epigenetic changes to many other genes active in the brain. At the end of the experiment, the bullied mice were socially withdrawn. The reason may well be due to methyl groups that were added in childhood to genes in her brain, thereby handcuffing her mood to feelings of fear and despair. How could we be sure that epigenetic drugs would scrub clean only the dangerous marks, leaving beneficial — perhaps essential — methyl groups intact? One such extra element is the methyl group, a common structural component of organic molecules. Now a leading figure in the study of maternal influence, Champagne just had her first child, a daughter. The hunt is on. Sometimes methyl groups attached to DNA thanks to changes in diet; other times, exposure to certain chemicals appeared to be the cause. Until researchers like Razin came along, the basic story line on how genes get transcribed in a cell was neat and simple.
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