Do you ever wish you had the power to control your DNA at will? New research says it's possible. Scientists today published findings revealing that methyl groups — which are usually used to suppress gene activity — can be removed from specific regions of your DNA in a matter of minutes. And all it takes is a little exercise.
It's worth pointing out that your DNA itself isn't actually being rewritten. What you're changing is the ability for parts of it to be expressed. Every cell in your body carries the same genetic code, but specific cells have a number of ways to turn a given gene on and off. One way is to stick a chemical modification — called a methyl group — on the gene that prevents a cell's molecular machinery from accessing it.
For years, the general rule of thumb about genes and methylation has been simple: once you reach adulthood, any of your genes that have been tagged with a methyl group are considered to be what geneticists call "mitotically stable," and cannot be strongly affected by environmental factors. But research published in today's Cell Metabolism suggests that de-methylating your DNA could be much easier than we once thought.
The research, which was led by Juleen Zierath of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, found that genes involved in energy metabolism (i.e. the cellular processes that help your body store and utilize energy) could be de-methylated and activated by having test subjects spend some time on an exercise bike. More vigorous exercise translated to greater demethylation, and the metabolism genes were transcribed in greater quantities.
How the methyl groups were actually removed remains unknown. In fact, the first enzymes capable of demethylating DNA were only discovered in the last couple of years, so this is definitely uncharted territory. As molecular biologist Ronald Evans put it in an interview with Nature News, "[there is] a rapid evolution in our understanding of the demethylation process. It is going to be different in six months if not three."
In other words, the findings of Zierath and her colleagues are at the frontier of research into questions of nature versus nurture, epigenetics, and gene manipulation. And that, explains Evans, "is right in the middle of a very exciting area."