So what is epigenetics and how does it relate to aging?

Written by: Clare-Anne Canfield  

Published on Saturday, November 17th, 2018 at 10:04 pm EDT

Written by: Clare-Anne Canfield


Figure 1. DNA methylation
Photo Credit: National Institutes of Health

First, some terms:

Genes: Traits you inherited from mom and dad. These heritable traits are codes that ultimately make you.

Phenotype: All those physical things about you, which includes things like your hair color, the tendency for your left eye to curve awkwardly when you smile (is that just me?).

Genotype: Your genetic identity. That entire DNA genome that leads to the awesome human you are right now.

Gene expression: This means a gene is active (being made) or inactive (not being made).

Methylation: Adding a chemical tag called a methyl group to DNA. See figure 1 above.

Epigenetics is the science of getting to know what changes gene expression without altering the genes. Epigenetic modifications are completely normal occurrences that happen to everyone. I’m not talking about DNA being mutated, that’s a different story, but I am talking about altering the expression of genes without messing with the genotype. There are a few ways that epigenetic changes can occur, including the chemical modification of histones (the proteins that help compact DNA for its storage inside of a cell), and the direct addition of methyl chemical groups to DNA itself. Largely, the addition of methyl groups to the beginning of a gene results in a reduction in expression of that gene (inactivation), and this process plays a role in the changes in gene expression with individual cells that allow your skin cells to “know” how to be skin cells, your liver cells to “know” how to be liver cells, etc.

Altered gene expression via DNA methylation is strongly associated with the aging process. There is a general tendency for the removal of methyl groups throughout your DNA with age, however some genes show specific patterns of increase or decrease in methylation over time. To date, more than 400 genes have been found to display consistent and measurable changes in their pattern of methylation over the course of a human lifespans.

Examples of genes that display specific changes include the aspartoacylase (ASPA) gene, which plays a role in amino acid metabolism as well as a probable role in the maintenance of white matter; the ectodysplasia A receptor associated death domain (EDARADD) gene, which aids in development while you’re still in the womb; and the integrin alpha 2B (ITGA2B) gene, which functions in cell-to-cell communication and blood coagulation.

If you’re wondering why I’m talking all this science jargon, well, that’s what we do. Osiris Green looks at those tiny methylation patterns on your DNA and allows you to really see yourself at the biological level.