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What is epigenetics? The making of a spectacular concert

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What is epigenetics? They say it’s important for the development of an organism. It’s also a critical process in cancer, and a potential target in the battle against it. Word has it that epigenetics is “hot” as fudge in research. It’s the present and future they say.

Don’t believe me? Ask my mom; seven years of researching epigenetics in cancer, and she finally learned: “He studies epigenetics! …and cancer…”. Her doctor-friends apparently give her looks of admiration (her words, not mine) and tell her that “that’s the shit in research today” (my words, not hers).

Yet, except for doctors, researchers and now my mom, no one else seems to know about epigenetics. Whenever I tell people what it is I do for a living, I do see a hint of expectation and excitement in their eyes, which is cool, but the rest of them screams cluelessness. “What… the… heck… is that?”

Still, I’m not blaming. Ultimately, we failed as researchers when we couldn’t even communicate the “hot” topic to you.

But I think you should be a part of the epigenetic advancement, just as you’re a part of the latest trends on [insert your favorite social media platform].

Proteins are building blocks, mitochondria make factories and CRISPR are scissors. But how about epigenetics? Where’s the “cool” metaphor or analogy for this one?

Well, I’ll show you where it is! It’s right here in the Embassy and it’s coming out to you right about now.

[clearing throat] and here we go… alright,

What is epigenetics? Creating the band

You know how all cells in your body contain the same genes, with the same genetic information, but still, they look and behave differently from one another? It’s all about gene expression and the genes they decide to use.

A cell might need to express a gene at one point but needs to keep it quiet at another. For example, olfactory cells are way more dependent on odor-detecting receptors than other cell types and need to maintain these genes activated. So, a cell’s identity doesn’t derive from the genes it has, but rather from the genes that are active (or inactive). That’s ultimately what makes cells unique and dynamic.

In contrast to genetic changes (more permanent editing, where gene codes are altered), epigenetics offers more or less temporary gene control, for example packing or unpacking DNA in certain regions. It’s like crumpling up a text note (no read…) and unfolding it (yes read!).

Epigenetics is, in other words, the conductor of the cells and here’s how I’m thinking.

What makes epigenetics? Start the music!

If you imagine your favorite music piece or song, you realize its uniqueness compared with other songs, even the songs performed by the same orchestra or band. Although all of them might have sounds in common, your favorite song differs from the other ones in the way it’s composed, conducted and performed. Order and organization are key to making your favorite song unique.

In theory, we could let our instruments randomly play their sounds all at once, but the result would be cacophonous; like eavesdropping multiple conversations at the bar.

We want music, brothers and sisters!

And if we want music, each instrument must play a selected set of notes in a specific order. Each musician, each instrument and each note are kind of activated and deactivated at specific time-points.

[violins: OFF; piano: OFF; saxophone and drums: ON]

The conductor is at work. She knows how to create dynamic pieces of artistry and it’s all in the structure.

what is epigenetics

Finetuning the melody (or the genetic expression)

And here we have it: Just like music, cells need structure. Genes need to be organized to express themselves at specific time-points for proper function.

Express all genes at once and you’d cause distortion. Imagine the chaos you’d get if they’d expressing contradicting genes simultaneously: ”grow and arrest”, “import and export”, “move and stay”. It would confuse and harm the cells and organisms.

This is why cells need a conductor; a function that decides which genes get activated or repressed, but without changing the gene code itself.

Epigenetics is a crucial process for a developing organism: it directs the DNA (orchestra) and its genes (musicians) to create cell types (music pieces or songs) by conducting the gene-expression (instrument-specific sounds).

Different cell types express distinct sounds at specific orders, creating a cell’s final identity. Yet, we see the same musicians performing the song; ladies and gentlemen, The Genes.

The epigenetic process is, as you see, different from changing, adding, removing or replacing members of the orchestra, which are all genetic changes. They can be done, but be aware, you might piss off band members, and the band might never recover.

There you have it! A poetic representation of epigenetics. The kind of writing that could reward me a wedgie after school back in the days. But hey, I’m an adult now and the years have taught me to go commando.

[The things I do for you readers though…]

The outro

You now know why epigenetics is hot. Why the doctors are talking about it and why their eyes shine when you mention it to them, and why my mom is so proud.

In my field – epigenetics and cancer – we investigate how flawed conducting (e.g. due to an unskilled or drunk conductor) can create malignant melodies. The goal is many times to develop strategies to correct the conductor (teaching, rehab, etc.), making her trash some awful and malignant songs. All for the benefit of the final concert; the organism.

How we do that is a different piece [right?]. There are several epigenetic processes to target, but we’ll cover that on a later post.

Until then, we’ll keep it poetic here at the Embassy.


A science communicator and former researcher in oncology (cancer) and molecular genetics (genes and gene regulation). Otherwise: BJJ, strength, triathlon, outdoor activities, travel, books, and whipped cream.

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