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Nowadays, scientists agree that both have an influence, but Spector cautions that DNA does not hardwire our lives. It turns out that actions can physically alter genes and that—despite what we learned in biology class—we can pass acquired traits to our children or even grandchildren. This process, epigenetics, means, for example, that a person who overeats transmits the risk of obesity for several generations.

Identically Different: Why You Can Change Your Genes by Tim Spector

Genetics turns up in surprising places. Identical twins raised apart have remarkably similar personalities, sharing qualities such as optimism, empathy and a sense of humor or lack thereof. Environmental factors also deliver plenty of surprises. Most readers will squirm to learn that upbringing exerts remarkably little influence on how children turn out.

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They are far more likely to emulate their friends than their parents, however competent and loving. Abusive parents are a different matter; crime, abusive behavior and mental illness have a disturbing tendency to run in families. There was a problem adding your email address. Please try again.


Description Professor Tim Spector reveals the astonishing new science that is changing everything we thought we knew about genes and identity. Add to Basket Sign in to add to wishlist. The Diet Myth.

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Identically Different: Why You Can Change Your Genes by Tim Spector – review

Company number: And three generations later you could well be showing signs of that change. The idea that our environment and lifestyle can alter how our genes behave is part of the new field of science called epigenetics. It has been described as a revolution in the way we think about the human blueprint but has also been controversial - not least because it sits awkwardly beside Darwinian dogma. These signals can alter the way genes produce proteins or signal other genes and importantly, they can last months or years and are potentially reversible.

These epigenetic switches are triggered by many factors such as our lifestyle, environment and our age, and as the development of a growing foetus in the womb is totally dependent on these signals, it can alter the function of its cells. This can come in many forms and shows just how important these finely controlled mechanisms are for normal life.

The one most easily studied is methylation, in which a methyl chemical group is added or removed from the DNA, which alters what it does.

How Genetically Similar Are You To A Stranger?

Other changes include how DNA strands are folded tightly or loosely around chromatin, a mass of genetic material that makes up the content of the nucleus of a cell. Of great current interest - and controversy - is the idea that these signals can be triggered by an event in one generation and passed on to three subsequent generations by a slightly altered gene function, even if they were not exposed to the initial trigger.


Until about three years ago, we believed that unlike plants each time a human egg and sperm met the previous epigenetic marks were wiped clean — a bit like reformatting a CD. However, we now know that some signals from our parents escape the wiping process and are retained in the next generation.

What is controversial is how important these signals are in humans. Many studies of rodents and other animals have shown that effects of diet, stress, emotional deprivation or hormones in the grandparents generation can influence the traits and characteristics of grandchildren and great-grandchildren — even if they never met their ancestors and were never exposed to the initial event or diet. These changes in physical characteristics have been shown to be due to epigenetic changes that are passed across the generations - one example is how tortoiseshell cats get their markings.

For me, the finding that all animals that have been studied have these generational changes tells me that humans are unlikely to be different.

The first example is the Dutch Hunger winter of where a quarter of the Netherlands was starving for three months.